March 17, 2021

Rick E. Bagley: The Myth of Local Control And Why We Can’t Believe the California Department of Education

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Rick Bagley is a recently retired superintendent in California. Here he writes about a case which puts to the test a new California law that is supposed to give local school boards more control over the charter school authorizations that end up soaking local taxpayers. Unfortunately, what Bagley has learned is that the new law may not actually help at all, and that, as always, there’s a tangled web of players involved.

“I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.”    Friedrich Nietzsche

On the morning of Thursday February 11, 2021, a little-known group of nine appointees to a relatively obscure California Department of Education committee known as the “Advisory Commission on Charter Schools” or “ACCS,” quietly voted 8-1 to overturn the unanimous decision of a duly-elected local school board, to deny a charter school’s petition for renewal.

On its face the ACCS’s decision may seem insignificant and unimportant to all but the parties involved. Yet there is a much deeper and more troubling story here.

Sadly, this is a story with which we Americans are becoming all too familiar. It is a story of power grabs, deception, manipulation of facts, incompetence, cronyism, disregard for the law, outright lies and yes, even conspiracy theories. And it is a story that ultimately adversely impacts every single one of California’s 6.1 million K-12 students.

One option for gaining understanding of this case is to devote hours copiously reading and analyzing a mountain of documents, historical information, email threads, data, budgets, news stories, school board agendas and more. It is a daunting task and understandably most cannot afford the time necessary to complete it, especially with so many other issues consuming our collective bandwidth. The other option, the one chosen for this post, is to highlight the salient issues while providing links to the resource material readers may choose to explore and fact check as they wish.

We begin with the conspiracy theories.

The charter appeal put before the ACCS on February 11th was presented by a former charter CEO who was subsequently hired by the California Department of Education (CDE) in 2017 and recently promoted to a supervisory “Administrator 1” position within the CDE’s Charter Schools Division. His name is Craig Heimbichner and according to recent articles/opinions in the Sacramento Bee, EdSource, the Jewish News of Northern California, the Tribune (San Luis Obispo) and the Marin Independent Journal, Mr. Heimbichner was placed on paid leave February 25th, after the CDE finally became aware of his past writings, including anti-Semitic rhetoric and speculations about various conspiracies associated with denial of the Holocaust, 9/11 and more.

This man, whose audaciously extremist publications could have years ago been easily exposed via a simple Google search to any competent HR department considering his hire, was instead assigned the important responsibility of evaluating charter petitions and making well-researched, factual, and credible recommendations to the ACCS and ultimately, the California State Board of Education. This man is the person CDE entrusts to hold sway over the future of California’s charter schools and the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars assigned now and in years ahead, to fund them. The CDE put the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Next we turn to the CDE report Mr. Heimbichner presented to the ACCS and the rationale he gave for overturning on appeal, the comprehensive findings of a publicly elected local school board. Let us now consider the following:

· The CDE unexplainedly accepted from the charter school, multiple budgets presenting various (and conflicting) accounts of the charter’s actual financial position, reserves, cash flow, debt, etc. (RVSD Documentation, Exhibit “C”)

· Prior to the ACCS meeting on February 11th, the CDE inexplicably communicated with and accepted new information from the charter – information that was never provided to the school district. (Ross Valley Charter Petition Executive Summary, Page 10)

· CDE staff surprisingly withheld critical RVC financial documents from public disclosure, until after the ACCS meeting on February 11th. (RVSD Documentation, Exhibit “B”)

· CDE staff completely failed to question and/or investigate required elements of the charter’s academic performance data, which is incomplete and in the case of a student subgroup with documented excessive absenteeism, highly irregular and statistically improbable. (Ross Valley Charter Petition Executive Summary, Pages 2-6)

· CDE staff unjustifiably ignored significant achievement gaps in student performance, which are far wider than in the local district/county and appear to be widening. (RVSD Documentation, Exhibit “D”)

A complete and thorough analysis of the CDE report presented to the ACCS reveals numerous inaccuracies, omissions, contradictions, discrepancies and outright fabrications, all of which contribute to the creation of wholly unrealistic picture of RVC and in particular, its sustained fiscal viability.

Mr. Heimbichner is not the only fox guarding the henhouse. He and all within the CDE who helped engineer this report and which now appears to have been designed to achieve a pre-determined outcome, are at the core of allowing what the Washington Post in 2019 referred to as California’s charter schools operating “with little if any accountability or transparency to the public.” Such lax oversight is what leads to charter scams, fraud and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars that could have otherwise gone toward serving all of California’s students.

And finally, we come to the ACCS itself.

A new California Law, AB 1505, went into effect July 1, 2020, governing the process under which initial and renewal charter petitions are to be reviewed, approved/denied, overseen and appealed. The law is complicated and until the ACCS meeting on February 11th, untested regarding the proposed renewal of existing charters previously approved and overseen by the CDE. You can read about all the legalities and technicalities if you are so inclined, but the overarching emphasis of AB 1505 was, according to the California School Boards’ Association (CSBA), to “empower authorizers to consider how the charter school would impact the community and the neighborhood schools.” Another way of putting it, which has been one of California’s favorite catch phrases over the last several years, is that AB 1505 was intended to expand “local control” by giving increased deference to school districts and their duly-elected boards.

Documents attached to the agenda for the February 11th ACCS meeting validate the local school district and its elected Board complied fully with the extensive review requirements of the new statute. These documents chronicle significant fiscal and governance problems that led to the district’s legitimate denial of the charter’s renewal petition. Yet, in their analysis of the district’s findings and presentation, the CDE and ACCS unilaterally implemented a broader standard of review than the law stipulates. This action, in turn, negated the ACCS’ legal obligation to give greater deference to the local school board, which by the way, ultimately bears the immediate impact, cost consequences and harm to students, of a charter failing within their jurisdiction.

The recorded video of the February 11, 2021 ACCS meeting and comments made by its commissioners (ACCS meeting video at approximately 2:51:45) affirm that instead of giving deference to the local school board as the law requires, the ACCS made its decision primarily based on the emotional appeals of those who spoke on the charter’s behalf and the factually inaccurate, incomplete and biased analysis of CDE staff under leadership of Administrator Heimbichner. Several ACCS commissioners also went out of their way to chastise and denigrate the school district and its board for their comprehensive due diligence and nearly quarter century of direct experience with the charter school’s well-documented malfeasance, dishonesty, self-dealing, litigiousness and legacy of discrimination against students of color, students with disabilities and students whose primary language is not English.

Overall, the February 11, 2021 ACCS decision was a test case for what can be expected in cases to come. It stands as an example of what happens when an appointed body armed with limited knowledge, “alternate facts,” emotion, and bias, takes it upon itself to undermine local control and the decision-making authority of elected officials in a community who knows “the real story” and has experienced it firsthand for decades.

The California State Board of Education (SBE), who will be meeting on March 17th (Item 08) to make a final decision, proclaims its mission is to,

“Create strong, effective schools that provide a wholesome learning environment through incentives that cause a high standard of student accomplishment as measured by a valid, reliable accountability system.”

That is a noble mission statement. In it I hear the SBE telling us that in service to all of California’s students, they set high expectations for modeling ethical conduct infused with integrity, honesty, transparency, and neutrality. And we should all be upset, or worse, that from now on we can’t believe them.

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