Written by Robin Chait, a Project Director with WestEd’s School Choice Team.

Over the past year, the national conversation about charter school authorizing has focused on opening charter schools that meet the needs and reflect the interests of the communities they serve. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), in particular, is leading a conversation about community-centered authorizing. Their vision is that families and communities know what kinds of schools their children need and have assets that could be tapped to support innovative, new schools. NACSA’s virtual Leadership Conference this year included many sessions that addressed this idea of community-centered authorizing and how it can be implemented.

During this conference, WestEd staff had the opportunity to learn about how one charter school authorizer and a charter school operator were able to work collaboratively to meet the needs of students and communities. WestEd and the California Charter Authorizing Professionals (CCAP) convened a panel to discuss the implementation of California’s new provision in law that refers to the interests of the community. While the provision refers to the interests of the community, it also articulates a variety of ways that authorizers should assess how a new charter school would impact traditional schools and the district as a whole.

What Is District Impact and How Is it Measured?

In reference to community interest, California law requires an assessment of the impact of opening a new charter school on traditional schools or districts—termed “district impact” in this blog post. Specifically, the provision requires authorizers to assess whether

  • the proposed charter school would undermine existing services and programs,
  • the proposed charter school would duplicate an existing program that has capacity to serve more students, and
  • the school district can absorb the fiscal impact of the new school.

WestEd staff were interested in investigating whether these two types of interests—community-interests and district impacts—could be at odds. In this blog, we share insights from our panel discussion about balancing community interest and district impact in implementing this new provision. Panelists included Tom Hutton, Executive Director of CCAP; Susan Park, Program Manager from the San Diego Unified School District (SUSD); and David Sciarretta, Superintendent of the Albert Einstein Academies.

Hutton shared some questions California authorizers have about this provision, including:

  • How would duplication of programs and services be defined?
  • Would county offices of education be expected to assess community interest through a de novo (new) review or only review the analysis of the district? If a de novo review is required, how much deference should be accorded to the district’s analysis?
  • How would community interest be defined?
  • How could authorizers and petitioners consider the positive contributions a proposed school could make to the community interest and the potentially positive impacts on the district?
  • How should an authorizer handle a situation in which a proposed school would duplicate an existing program that is low performing?

Case Study: Albert Einstein Academies and the San Diego Unified School District

Albert Einstein Academies submitted a petition to open a new high school, and San Diego Unified School District (SUSD) used their community interest process to assess and approve the expansion. Panelist Susan Park discussed San Diego’s process for developing guidance to support implementation of the new provision. The district already had several structures for gathering feedback from school leaders and other stakeholders in place, so they could use these structures to solicit feedback on potential guidance. They also have a Charter Advisory Group that comprises 9 to 10 charter leaders that meet five to seven times each year to provide input on various policies.

SUSD also developed a stakeholder survey to get input on the kinds of information they should gather in making this district impact decision. Besides convening their Charter Advisory Group, the district relied on other associations, such as CCAP and the California Charter Schools Association, to convene input sessions. They also met with Parent Teacher Association leaders and district principals. By gathering all of this input, San Diego leaders built consensus for their implementation process.

The Superintendent of Albert Einstein Charter Academy, David Sciarretta, appreciated the transparent process when applying to open an International Baccalaureate (IB) high school. He cited a collaborative relationship with the district that was supportive of his goals. He noted that operators in San Diego had input into the authorizer’s policies, which created a win-win situation for the district and charter schools. Albert Einstein Academy has an IB Program middle school, and they were applying to open a new IB high school. While San Diego already has two IB high schools, this new school would also offer a Career and Technical Education Program.

Importantly, the charter school and district have a long-standing collaborative partnership in which 8th grade students from Albert Einstein Academy have a preference to enroll at two of San Diego’s IB high schools. The charter school and district also co-fund a teaching position that supports the IB Program. The district and charter school would continue to co-fund this position after the new high school opens. Both Dr. Sciarretta and Ms. Park credited this long-standing collaborative relationship with the smooth process of implementing the district impact provision.

Lessons Learned

Based on our discussion of the example of Albert Einstein and SUSD, WestEd staff identified these lessons learned for charter operators and authorizers. The through line each panelist shared was the importance of building strong relationships that value collaboration and transparency.

Getting input from many stakeholders in developing the process for considering community interest is helpful to building consensus for implementation. San Diego sought input from charter leaders, parent associations, charter associations, special education directors, and others to determine what factors were important to them and should be part of their considerations.

The panelists agreed that rigid definitions of district impact or community interest are not helpful since the education landscape is constantly shifting and the circumstances surrounding each charter petition—and the local context in which it is being considered—are unique. For instance, some charter schools may draw from a 30-mile radius, while others function as a neighborhood school. However, a policy document that outlines the considerations and questions authorizers will ask in making this decision provides a helpful road map for both parties.

The primary lesson one can draw from this one example is the importance of the charter operator and authorizer working together to make sure that new schools are meeting the interests of the community and school district. As Dr. Sciarretta shared, “we can partner for the sake of our kids, and it helps both of us.”

Robin Chait is a Project Director with WestEd’s School Choice content area. Throughout her career, she has worked in policy, research, and practice to expand educational opportunities for all students. Learn more about Charters & Choice at WestEd.