Possible statewide implications for education from Dozier-Libbey charter battle
By John Crowder
The Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board of Trustees voted, on March 19th, to reject a petition by teachers from Dozier-Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS) to convert their campus to a charter school. At the same time they voted to approve a novel idea presented by three district employees, Antioch High School Principal Louie Rocha, Deer Valley High School Principal Kenneth Gardner, and Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Anello to make the school a “dependent” charter.
Had the Board simply rejected the petition submitted by the teachers, the issue would have moved through the appeals process to the County and then the State Boards of Education for resolution. But by proposing to create a district-dependent charter school, they have set the stage for a much larger battle. If a school district can stop a school from converting to a charter school simply by writing a counter-petition, the law concerning the conversion of schools to charters could be effectively gutted. The California state charter school movement cannot allow such an outcome, and are certain to take legal action to prevent it.
This may well prove to be a costly battle. One important consideration will be the interpretation of the meaning and intent of the Charter School Act. Which part of the law governs this case will also be considered. The teachers at DLMHS are seeking the conversion of an existing school to a charter school. The court may ultimately be asked to determine whether or not the district can prevent the teachers from exercising this right by means of their counter petition.
The teachers of Dozier Libbey have filed their petition in line with the law concerning the conversion of schools to charter schools in California. This portion of the law is very clear. Section 47601 of the California Education Code (also referred to as the “Charter Schools Act of 1992”) provides: “It is the intent of the Legislature, in enacting this part, to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure…” (For the complete language of the Act, click here).
The charter proposal put forward by the 23 teachers who signed the petition to convert DLMHS meets this intent. The “dependent charter” petition proposed by AUSD staff clearly does not. On page “ii” of the AUSD petition, it states, “The District shall be deemed the exclusive public school employer of the employees of Dozier-Libbey Medical High School, Dependent Charter School…” On page 8, no less than three times, the petition states, “The Charter School will comply with all District requirements and/or policies…” when referring to certain categories of learners. Continuing with their petition, phrases such as, “The District shall be responsible,” “The District shall address,” and “The District may initiate” repeatedly appear. Even more telling is the statement on page 18 of the petition, which reads, “The Charter School’s Executive Committee is comprised of five members appointed by the Board of Trustees…” There can certainly be no independence from the existing school district structure there.
Another problem involving the AUSD petition, should the courts determine that it is the law relating to the conversion of a school to a charter that must be applied, has to do with the collection of signatures. Section 47605, subdivision (a)(2), which is the applicable section when converting an existing public school to a charter school, requires signatures of “not less than 50% of the permanent status teachers currently employed” at the campus to be converted in order for a conversion charter petition to be valid. Once again, the teacher charter petition, with signatures from 23 of the 26 teachers currently teaching at DLMHS, easily meets this criteria. The District proposal, on the other hand, provides many more signatures of teachers, but it appears that not one of those who signed works at the DLMHS campus.
AUSD staff is working hard to defeat the teacher charter proposal. But, with the proposal they have submitted to maintain district control of the school, and refer to it as a charter, they have raised an issue that goes far beyond local politics, and could impact education policy for the entire state. It seems apparent from a plain reading of the law, that what District staff propose would not qualify as a conversion charter school, no matter what it is called.
Nothing seems certain in this situation, however. Ricardo Soto, a Senior Vice President and Legal Counsel for the California Charter Schools Association, told me, last week, that the move by AUSD to create a dependent charter school was unique, something he had never seen in his many years of being involved with education law. For those of us interested in education, the Dozier-Libbey charter battle, far from over, promises to be one of the most important debates we have seen in a long time.