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New charter plan may have violated state law

Read more of Cosmo Garvin’s charter-schools coverage on his blog at

It wasn’t a surprise, but local school board trustees from Sacramento City Unified, Natomas Unified and other area school districts were still disappointed that the Sacramento County Office of Education board usurped its power to approve or disapprove charter schools and greenlighted a plan by Fortune Schools to open several new charter schools throughout the county.

Fortune Schools—a nonprofit organization run by Margaret Fortune, who was instrumental in converting Sacramento High School to a charter school in 2006—will be allowed to open five schools over the next five years—with five more to follow, pending approval from the SCOE board. The charter network would serve 5,000 kids in all.

Fortune’s stated goal is closing the achievement gap between African-American and white students, which prompted SCOE trustee Harold Fong—the sole “no” vote against the plan—to complain that the board might be approving segregated schools.

But mostly, the local school boards feel undermined. “I’m disappointed,” said Sacramento City Unified trustee Patrick Kennedy. “I think this is a local decision, with impacts on our local districts.”

The county board of education has no active charter schools at all under its watch right now, and some worry it’s ill-equipped to give the large new charter network adequate oversight.

“We scrutinize these charters pretty heavily to make them better. I don’t think they have the track record or the experience,” Kennedy argued, adding that it could be difficult to hold the SCOE accountable, as the agency is more or less unknown to the public.

He also thinks the county board of education may have violated state law when it approved the Fortune charter—because backers of the charter and the staff at SCOE didn’t really address likely impacts on local school districts.

For example, at Natomas Unified, trustee Lisa Kaplan says the district “cannot afford to lose several hundred kids,” as it is already in such a precarious financial position—because of low enrollment, the economy and the impact of several previously established charter schools, which siphon state education money away from the district—that it faces possible bankruptcy and takeover by the state.

“If the charters are approved in our district,” Kaplan said, “it’s basically the board rubber-stamping a state takeover.”

But SCOE may not have the last word on the big charter push.

“Litigation is a real possibility. I think it should be explored,” Kennedy said.

The local districts aren’t the only ones contemplating a lawsuit. The California Teachers Association sent a letter to the SCOE board warning that the courts might frown on a countywide charter. The teachers union cites the case of California School Boards Association v. State Board of Education and Aspire Public Schools, decided last summer in the California 1st District Court of Appeal, which found that Aspire schools could not circumvent local boards under to establish statewide charter.

Sure, a statewide charter sounds a lot less local than a countywide charter. But the CTA says the principle is the same. The education code says that a county board of education “may only” approve a countywide charter if there’s a compelling reason to believe that the same goals can’t be achieved by going through the local boards.

Fortune has said that the persistent achievement gap between African-American and white students is a “regional problem” and requires a regional solution.

But the CTA argues that “state and countywide charters are the exception to the rule,” and that the SCOE board should “follow the law by only granting such charters in the extraordinary circumstances—the exceptions to the rule—where they are appropriate.”