School-house blues

Margaret Fortune, who was the main pitch person and superintendent for Kevin Johnson’s St. Hope schools back in the day, wants to open 10 charter schools—with nearly 5,000 students—in Sacramento County over the next decade.

And she wants to short-circuit the elected boards (and teachers unions) of several local school districts by going straight to the more sympathetic board of the Sacramento County Office of Education to get approval for her schools.

Not surprisingly, the trustees at the Sacramento City Unified School District, where many of the schools would be located, along with teachers unions and some parent groups are freaking at this unprecedented move.

“This proposal will just siphon off high-performing kids, along with their ADA, without doing anything to help those schools that need it most,” said parent Kate Lenox at a meeting of the SCUSD board of trustees last week.

The trustees unanimously passed a resolution asking the SCOE to reject Fortune’s application and encouraging her to make her case to the SCUSD board instead.

Let’s back up. State law says that a charter school applicant usually has to ask the local school board for approval. But it also says the charter school can go up the ladder to the County Office of Education if there’s a compelling reason.

Fortune’s goal is to close the persistent “achievement gap” in test scores and dropout rates between African-American students and white students.

Sacramento has the third largest population of African-American students in the state after Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. So changing the outcomes for black students here could move the numbers for all of California.

But Bites suspects Fortune is also just shopping for a friendlier board. The SCOE currently has no active charter schools under its watch, SCUSD has lots, and it’s still dealing with the fallout of Sacramento Charter High School.

State law also requires school districts to provide buildings for charter schools. Fortune would have to pay rent to the school district, but it’s still a financial and political burden that the local district is loathe to take on—especially when they don’t have any power over the charter.

“That’s the law,” said SCOE Superintendent Dave Gordon. Earlier this week, Gordon recommended the SCOE board approve the charter, over the objections of the Sac City trustees, at its February 1 meeting.

Fortune says that “even though we’re entitled” to sites provided by the district, she plans, for now, just to lease existing commercial buildings.

“If you’d been through what I went through with Sac High, you wouldn’t go back. I don’t want to do hand-to-hand combat with teachers unions over buildings,” Fortune told Bites.

(Bites is compelled here, once again, to note that Mrs. Bites is a stellar teacher in the SCUSD. You may also have noticed you don’t get the same union bashing here that goes on in other columns around town. Coincidence?)

That still leaves the fight over ADA, or average daily attendance, money that the state provides for each student enrolled in the district.

Charter schools are often accused of skimming off the motivated students (and their ADA money) while leaving behind the problem kids, the special-ed students, the English-language learners and other children who drag down test scores.

Kerri Asbury, a special-education teacher who’s also head of the local Democratic Party, told the SCUSD board, “We know it is a practice in charter schools to eliminate kids that don’t meet their standards.” Ouch.

Fortune says flatly that won’t happen at her schools. But it’s the local school board’s job to make sure.