The end to decades of intractable charter warfare came courtesy of an unstoppable grassroots movement
By Bil Raden
Now Make Me Do It. State lawmakers, along with labor and education leaders, gathered at the governor’s office last week to do something few had imagined possible only a year ago — celebrate the close of California’s unregulated charter school expansion. “This is what policymaking is about,” beamed Governor Gavin Newsom as he signed Assembly Bill 1505 and AB 1507. “Moving the needle and making a difference.” California school boards now have a say in whether a proposed charter school is a healthy fit for their districts; existing charters now have a clear roadmap for renewal. The Why Now for such a seemingly sudden turnaround to decades of intractable charter warfare came courtesy of California Teachers Association (CTA) president E. Toby Boyd, when he singled out the thousands of “educators, parents, social justice advocates [and the] community groups and our union partners,” who together created an unstoppable grassroots movement that offered Sacramento and the charter sector no other choice. (Disclosure: CTA is a financial supporter of this website.)
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“You can’t ignore a groundswell,” agreed organizer and K-12 News Network cofounder Cynthia Liu, who credited the galvanizing force of the 2016 presidential election and this year’s California teachers strikes for the breakout of charter law reforms. “People are beginning to realize there is such a thing as a public good, and maybe it’s not so great to have profiteers, whether they’re oil profiteers or ed tech profiteers or whatever it is come into this public good and just strip-mine it.” The Southern California mom traces her own moment of truth to the depths of the Great Recession and the budget cuts to her son’s public kindergarten. She says she became angry and exasperated by the media’s parroting of unverified charter claims: “I already knew about the 40 years of public education disinvestment through Proposition 13, so I sort of plunged in.”
LAUSD parent activist Tracy Cook was already an environmental justice veteran when, she said, she made the connection between the corporate money flowing to what she calls “oily Democrats,” last year’s record-breaking independent expenditures on behalf of statewide charter candidates and the Trump-DeVos cheerleading of school choice. “I thought, ‘Oh, sweet Jesus! If I can knock on doors with my husband in Westminster for [Democratic congressional candidate] Harley Rouda for six weeks, and if I can show up to protect the Mojave Desert from the Cadiz Water people or the Sacramento Delta from Big Ag, I can certainly show up for [AB] 1505 and 1507.’”
Up in Oakland, meanwhile, public schools advocate Mike Hutchinson had been lobbying for something like the immunity offered by AB 1505 for fiscally struggling districts from new charter creation ever since Oakland Unified emerged from its disastrous, 2003 state takeover. (It was stricken by debt and burdened by the largest percentage of charter students in California.) “For OUSD, it’s a huge step forward,” the Oakland Public Education Network (OPEN) founder explained. “The way I read the bill, Oakland will not be approving any new charter schools anytime soon, because we’re by definition in financial distress. And with this law, if we get a good school board elected in Oakland next year, that board will finally have the tools they need to better manage our resources.”
But last week’s Sacramento signing ceremony was just the beginning of more far-reaching reforms in progress. “We all know that the bills were a lot stronger when they came out of the assembly,” Liu reasoned, “and we know that the legislature is capable of more.” How much more is hinted at in “Public Funds for Public Schools,” the pro-public ed resolution championed by Liu and other activists that was just adopted as a California Democratic Party position at its August executive board meeting. The activists’ long game? Nothing less than restoring Californians’ faith in — and full funding of — the democratic project of free and universal public education. Which, Liu translated, means good governance and stewardship of public resources through local control and accountability. But first there’s the little matter of a progressive tax measure on the 2020 ballot called the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative that’s in need of some grassroots love and momentum.