Many of the current trustees on the Orange County Board of Education have voiced support for school choice and charter schools. Now an item on the board’s Oct. 5 agenda is sparking discussions about what trustees should take into account when making decisions regarding petitions from charter schools.
Last month, the board hosted the forum titled:“Strengthening California’s Charter Schools at a Local and State Level.”
In a press conference preceding the Sept. 20 event, Board President Lisa Sparks, Ph.D., characterized the board’s approach this way: “Remember that old song, ‘I was country when country wasn't cool?’ Well guess what? My colleagues and I, we were charter when charter wasn't cool.”
Charter schools are free, public schools that are funded with taxpayer dollars but have more flexibility in their curriculum and approach to educating TK-12 students. They are subject to increased local oversight.
There are 35 charter schools in Orange County serving roughly 21,000 students, according to the OCBE website. That’s a small slice of the 475,000 students attending the county’s more than 600 public schools.
A significant role of the OCBE is to hear appeals from charter schools that were denied permission to open or expand from a local school district’s board of education. Under the current board, charter schools have been growing, with some being granted the right to open schools anywhere in the county.
“We're really excited to let people know that there are free public charter schools that take all comers,” board member Mari Barke said at the press conference, “and we don't want to see a child's life determined by their zip code or by a lottery.”
“So we want to really expand our charter schools here in Orange County, and we hope that this will be the start of big things to come,” she added.
A petition on the OCBE’s Oct. 5 meeting agenda appears to be testing some board members’ generally unwavering support for charter schools. At the very least, it opened up a conversation about what trustees can or should consider when deciding to approve or deny a charter school’s petition.
Is their role all about offering families more options and choices for their students? Or should a charter school’s curriculum factor in decision making and finally, what role does a school’s perceived political values or hired contractors play in informing decisions?
Contractor of Oxford Preparatory Academy scrutinized
OPA already operates a K-8th grade school in Lake Forest that was opened with OCBE approval. It also operates another K-8th school under the Capistrano Unified School District. OPA’s goal is to create a third middle school campus for all of its 6th - 8th graders to attend.
“With the addition of a dedicated middle school, we will be able to increase electives, sports, and other enrichment offerings that are preferred for a true middle school experience,” OPA’s Chief Academic Officer, Stephanie Henry, Ed.D., wrote in an email to Spotlight Schools.
Dr. Henry also said she hopes the campus will foster stronger connections with the local high schools.
“We will be able to expand our rigorous honors and accelerated learning opportunities, as well as strong world language and STEAM programs to prepare our students for high school and beyond,” she said.
During a public hearing on the petition at the board’s August 17 meeting, OPA representatives presented their case for expansion. Executive Director Amy Kernan, Ed.D., talked about the award-winning schools which have a waitlist of nearly 2,000 students.
During public comment at that meeting, a speaker who identified himself as a parent of a student at OPA said he was there to “blow a whistle” on the school regarding its contract with a company to train six teachers. He described the contractors as “political activists rather than educators” based on what he saw online.
He said the company’s website promoted anti-racism instruction, among other items, and also he questioned the company’s data-collection practices.
After his comments, a few OPA supporters, including two parents, addressed the board. One mother said she had been part of the school for eight years and said “OPA does a wonderful job of staying true to their charter mission and creating lifelong learners and seeing all children as gifted.”
When it came time for the OCBE members to ask questions, trustee Ken Williams, D.O., zeroed in on the contractor, saying he was very concerned by it and that it could translate to a “no” vote from him.
“This is a real serious matter in this nation. This culture and this ideology that racism is pervasive is the wrong political notion to be portraying at [the] school level,” Dr. Williams said.
Dr. Kernan responded that the contract with the company had only recently been approved at the OPA board’s June meeting, and that the group was hired to train teachers in how to create “Restorative Circles” in classrooms to encourage more participation.
“We are just using them for a very small piece with just doing the ‘trainer of trainers’ with our teachers, so they won't be working directly with any of our students,” she said and welcomed the chance to speak further with trustees about it.
Dr. Williams responded with a warning: “But you see a little bit of darkness gets into an area in your school, which then creeps and spreads like a virus. And if you start spreading this virus that is really antithetical to this culture to this nation, to who we really are as a diverse nation … you're taking part; you're aiding and abetting this evil.”
Board President Dr. Sparks followed by cautioning Dr. Kernan about the importance of vetting contracts. “We're paying a lot of attention to grants and contracts more than any other board in the history of this board,” Dr. Sparks said.
“So we will be looking in detail at those kinds of contracts and it could get in the way of approval,” she added.
Experts weigh in
One month later at the Sept. 20 OCBE forum supporting charter schools, Dr. Williams brought up the OPA petition in a question to panelists.
“We've had parents come up to us and complain about the ‘wokeness,’ about the inculcation of critical race theory about teaching Marxism,” Williams said. (A parent voiced concerns at the Sept. 7 OCBE board meeting including about posters in her child’s classroom that she said mentioned critical race, feminist and Marxist. She said her principal responded and the posters were ultimately removed).
At the charter schools forum, Dr. Williams asked the five panelists: “Does this board have the right to say no to this charter?”
Gloria Romero, the former Majority Leader of the California State Senate and co-founder of the Explore Academy charter schools, responded first.
“I’m actually going to flip it. I’m going to say, look, a charter school means choice. And so basically parents can vote with their feet,” she said, suggesting if parents don’t like the curriculum, they should voice their concerns and if they don’t like the response, they can find another school.
“I would caution the board to not necessarily get entangled in the actual curriculum itself,” added Romero.
Fellow panelist, Ricardo Soto, Chief Advocacy Officer and General Counsel for the California Charter Schools Association, agreed with Romero.
“The charter school petitioners have the opportunity to offer the program that they believe will provide an opportunity or serve a particular community. And I do think that the law in California provides them a lot of latitude in terms of … what curriculum they can use,” Soto said.
Jorge Valdes, who was appointed to the OCBE in August, said he is a supporter of charter schools but questioned how the board should act in this case, especially if parents are complaining.
“Would this board not be turning our backs on those parents by simply saying, ‘walk with your feet’?” he asked panelists.
He later asked Soto, “Don't we have the authority as this board to comment on their charter? Perhaps limit it if we don't like the curriculum?”
“I’m a lawyer and I support our charter schools and this argument can be made on both sides, you know,” Soto responded. He said California’s law is very specific when it comes to the reasons for denying a charter school’s petition.
“In the end, charter schools are accountable for academic outcomes,” Soto said.
“Obviously this board could deny a charter if it violates the law, if it's discriminating, if it violates a particular constitutional right. But other than that, I mean, if the program is sound, and the charter meets all the elements of the petition, the law then, and I would say this to a school district also, then the school district and this board should be approving the charter.”
In a phone interview on Oct. 3, OCBE trustee Mari Barke said that while she shares her fellow board members’ concerns about schools utilizing critical race theory and any lessons that could pit students against one another, she was in alignment with Soto’s and Romero’s advice.
“It really isn’t up to us to tell them what to teach,” she said and added, “I do think that it’s important that parents speak up if they have concerns,” but that “it doesn’t seem that our personal views on the board should, you know, decide whether a charter is approved or expanded.”
Barke’s husband, Jeff Barke, M.D., co-founded the charter school Orange County Classical Academy, which offers curriculum from Michigan-based Hillsdale College, which describes itself as“small, Christian, classical liberal arts college.”
Spotlight Schools learned that in the days after the Aug. 17 meeting, OPA’s Executive Director sent a letter to OCBE trustees, that read, in part:
“Oxford Preparatory Academy definitely takes all parent concerns very seriously and works hard to address any issue immediately. We also never want to give the perception that we are doing things that may make our community uncomfortable, like teaching CRT or promoting particular political views. I want to assure the Board that we are not teaching CRT or Marxism. We also do not teach gender pronouns to elementary students,” she said in the letter.
Dr. Henry, OPA’s chief academic officer, confirmed in a text to Spotlight Schools that the agreement with the contractor to train teachers in “Restorative Circles” had been terminated. She also said Dr. Kernan has had “productive communication with the Orange County Board of Trustees since the August 17th meeting and presentation.”
“As a community, OPA is very excited about the meeting and vote–we look forward to a positive response to the petition for a middle school,” Dr. Henry wrote.
The Orange County Department of Education’s charter schools unit, which reviews petitions and issues recommendations to the board, is recommending the approval of Oxford Preparatory Academy Middle School for a term of five years starting July 1, 2023.