By Gayle Romasanta
Staff writer for CSBA
Why did you think it was important to create the Charter Schools Task Force?
Chris Ungar: Several years ago the CSBA Delegate Assembly Region 1 Director Bob Berkowitz and had a conversation about charter schools. He owned radio stations in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. He related his experience during the rise of FM radio, which was dismissed by many in the 1960s as a passing fad … radio folks never believed that FM would overtake AM radio. He compared this with traditional and charter schools, and encouraged me to open a discussion on charters. Fast forward six or so years, and we have seen a rise in charters. Large districts have seen tremendous growth in them, and several have supported the notion that good charter schools can be good for kids. I felt it was important to recognize that charters are not going away. So what can educational leaders do to make sure that they are doing the very best for kids? There is also a ton of so called “reformer” money involved, and this reinforces the notion of permanency. We cannot be Yellow Cab in an Uber world.
What role will the task force play at CSBA and in charter school policies at the state level?
Chris Ungar: We will investigate best practices for authorization and support as it relates to the role of school boards. We will recommend advocacy positions and legislation. In addition, we will make policy recommendations that will be shared with our members. In the end, we must remain ardent advocates for children.
How will the task force help governance teams and board members with understanding charter schools and how to work with them at the local level?
Chris Ungar: I expect that we will make recommendations for policies, especially as they relate to authorization and oversight. I expect that we will also make recommendations on leveling the playing field for traditional public schools. I have to ask the question, “If fewer restrictions in the Education Code are necessary for the success of charters, then why isn’t the same thing critical for traditional public schools?”
Can members look forward to a formal report back from the task force every quarter or once a year?
Chris Ungar: I expect that we will provide updates throughout the term of the committee. I also think we will issue a comprehensive report at the conclusion.
In your August column in California School News, you mention that the current law charter school law leads to irregularities and lack of accountability. Can you expand on that?
Chris Ungar: I think the simplest way to explain this is that there is no real set of standards for charter authorization or reauthorization. There are a loose set of rules, but it almost seems that it’s “every man for himself.” In addition, we heard several instances of charter petitions that were initially rejected by local boards and then forwarded to county boards with substantial changes. This also happens when petitions are rejected by the county and sent to the state. I wonder, when substantive changes are made, shouldn’t it go back to the original authorizer? Also, the impact of charters on the finances of school districts should be considered. When it comes to accountability, what is the marker for student success? Simply test scores? How about financial management? A requirement for open meetings? Investigation into contracts with school management companies and real estate firms? We could also talk about whether charters lead to segregation. How about services to special education students? Entry practices? Then there are charters that seem to violate district boundary rules and appear to be set up only to enrich the authorizers. I could go on, however, we must recognize that there are some very good charters, so how can we learn from them? How can charters learn from successful traditional schools?
Chris Ungar is the California School Boards Association 2016 President and is a board member in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo County.