Carl J. Petersen: Shouldn’t All Children Be Safe In The Schools They Attend?
Carl J. Petersen keeps a close eye on Los Angeles schools. Here he offers a reminder that charter schools don’t have to follow the same safety rules as public schools–and they fight to keep it that way. Reposted with permission.
For obvious reasons, buildings that house public schools are subject to strict standards for health and safety. For example, the Field Act mandates “rigorous oversight of the construction of every public school” ensuring that California schools “are the safest buildings in the world” during an earthquake. When public school facilities are built “on land that was previously contaminated, state law outlines specific protocols to safely remediate the area.” If a proposed site “is within a quarter-mile of a facility known to emit air pollution, schools are required to contact local government air quality regulators to assess the potential health risks.”
Parents who send their children to private schools, including charter schools, may not realize that privately-owned facilities are not subject to these same requirements. This exception is not an oversight, as the California Charter School Association (CCSA) has used its considerable political heft to block legislation that would make the schools that they represent safer for students. In fact, a 2019 presentation from this trade organization listed requiring “charters to comply with Field Act” as one of the “greatest threats” facing charter school operators.
As proposed by California Assemblymembers Alex Lee (D-25) and Cristina Garcia (D-58), AB 762 would have taken a step towards eliminating the disparity in regulation. This bill was written to require private schools, including charters, “to identify nearby sources of air pollution, consult with their local air districts, and meet siting requirements by evaluating the school site for potentially hazardous substances, hazardous emissions, or hazardous waste.” This would have ensured that “all schools are held to the same high standard and make it clear that a charter school designation is not a license to risk our children’s health and safety.”
As a common-sense approach to protecting the health and safety of students, teachers, and school employees, it is not surprising that AB 762 was on the fast track towards passage. In addition to organizations like the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association, and California Safe Schools, it was also supported by many of the schools it would have regulated including the California Association of Private School Organizations and, after some initial skepticism, the California Catholic Conference.
The bill originated in the Assembly where it passed. It then gained the approval of both the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and the Senate Education Committee. From there it moved on to the Appropriations Committee which is chaired by Anthony Portantino (SD 25). At this point, it was suddenly placed in the suspense file. Since it was not initially designated as a two-year bill, this action by the Appropriations Committee is a death sentence.
By design, it is difficult to find out the details surrounding the suspension placed on AB 762. As the committee chair, State Senator Anthony J. Portantino had the power to pull the trigger, but who ordered the hit? Probably realizing that loudly criticizing a bill that they admit had the goal of ensuring that private schools are “not located on or near sites of potentially hazardous emissions” would generate significant blowback from the public, the CCSA avoided using a megaphone against the proposal. Instead, the charter school industry quietly sent a letter to Portantino complaining that the proposed changes would “not only increase project costs significantly but will greatly limit access to property for charter schools use, especially in the most high-need communities.” Apparently, the CCSA’s #KidsFirst mantra does not apply if protecting these students from environmental hazards would result in “sunk costs between $60,000 to $125,000.”
The issues raised by AB 762 are not hypothetical, especially in Los Angeles. Parents and other community members are currently engaged in a battle with the City of Cudahy over the lack of a full environmental review for a school being built by KIPP Charter Schools on a site where soil samples showed “levels of arsenic…as high as 14.5 milligrams per kilogram,” which is “200 times the amount of arsenic that is identified as safe for human health by the state of California for school or residential areas.” Scholarship Prep, a charter school co-founded by Gloria Romero, is proposing a construction project that would expand their campus in an area victimized by years of oil drilling and idling trucks that pour toxins in the area. Without AB 762, this charter school will be exempted from performing studies to determine if this construction will be safe for the students who will attend this campus.
When it is convenient for them, the CCSA insists that they are “public schools,’ but their opposition to AB 762 proves once again that the only thing public about these schools is their source of funding. If these schools were actually public then they would support regulations that protect students. By helping to kill this bill, any claim they give #KidsNotPolitics first priority is thoroughly debunked.