The Charter School
An Effective Business Model for Student Achievement — an interview with Margaret Fortune of Charter School Association of California
Natalie Johnston | University of California, Davis, School of Law
Posted Monday, January 10, 2005
5 U.C. Davis Bus. L.J. 9 (2004)

Margaret Fortune studied Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She went on to pursue a Masters in Public Policy with a focus on business and government at Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government. Ms. Fortune served as the Assistant Secretary of Education under California Governor Gray Davis. She was also the Appointee and Chair of the commission on teacher credentialing, running one of six teacher recruitment centers. Ms. Fortune served as a superintendent of St. H.O.P.E. Public School District in Sacramento, CA and helped as a project manager in opening up Sacramento High School as a charter school. She recently became a consultant for the Charter School Association of California, leading the cause for the "No Child Left Behind" educational campaign.

Q: What are the general operations of a public charter school?

A: Charter schools are sponsored by a school district or county office[1]. St. H.O.P.E. [Helping Others Pursue Excellence] Public School District is sponsored by the Sacramento City Unified School District. Charter schools can be directly funded by the state or a school district. These schools give local faculty the opportunity to create their own curriculum. They must meet the same accountability requirements of any other public school, which means that the students take the same standardized tests as those in public schools. Students elect whether or not to attend a charter school. Student enrollment may be unlimited; if a charter school does limit its enrollment, it is because that specific charter school chooses to do so.

Q: What are the employment and labor regulations for public charter schools?

A: An independent charter school can hire its own employees. Therefore, the labor law that impacts it would be the same labor law that any private company or non-profit organization would abide by. An independent charter school is freed from many of the negotiation agreements between teachers and the school district.

Q: In your opinion, should taxpayers be concerned because their tax dollars are being used to fund public chartered schools instead of regular public schools?

A: I think from the perspective of a taxpayer, charter schools offer an environment that is more accountable for producing results; this is because parents and students that attend the school are not compelled to stay there if the school is not achieving their academic goals. Charter schools are often times more efficient because they require accountability within the context of competition, as opposed to a typical public school where tax payers pour their resources into schools and have no modicum of control over the quality of the schools. Because charter schools are not compelled by a collective bargaining agreement, as would a public school, the employees are held accountable for results rather than being protected by a contract that often times protects employees that are underperforming in their jobs. Thus, for a taxpayer who is concerned about accountability, a charter school is a preferable model.

Q: What was the purpose of submitting a charter and closing down the then existing public school of Sacramento High School?

A: Sacramento High School, under its old administration, was a school that had been chronically underachieving and had experienced a drop in test scores over a number of years. The school accepted a grant from the State of California to turn around student achievement. Upon acceptance of the grant, it also accepted the consequences attached to the grant. The school experienced a drop in test scores after receiving the grant. In lieu of just taking the state sanctions, the school board decided to take action and close the school so that it could offer a better educational opportunity. The purpose of closing the school was to give another organization, through the auspices of a charter school, an opportunity to reopen at that site and to serve the same children but with a more productive model.

Q: In your opinion, was the closure due to the employment regulations in the public school?

A: The reason why the school was closed was because student achievement was poor. At the time the school closed, the labor union was at an impasse with the school district administration. The school district had its hands tied by its contract with the City of Sacramento teachers union, which made it difficult to achieve the types of reforms that would have turned a failing school like Sacramento High School around.

Many school reforms call for schools to be smaller which require staff to work in a context of small schools. The union fought such reform. Many high schools that are trying to turn themselves around want flexible scheduling so that students can have more time in a class to learn core subjects. The union contract prohibits that. Many teachers want to operate in a context of accountability where they can work until the job gets done because the students need extra instruction. The union contract prohibits that as well. So, the union and their contract with the district created a hostile environment that did not allow reform. I think that the union agreements had an effect on the administration's decision-making process as it related to the schools, but Sacramento High School was not the only school affected by such agreement.

Q: What were the employment- and labor-related legal challenges in opening the charter school in your school district?

A: The major employment and labor related challenge we ran into was a lawsuit from the California Teacher's Association, which tied us up in litigation for a good amount of time. It also cost the union about a half a million dollars in resources to fight the community that wanted a new school. And ultimately, on their part, the litigation was unsuccessful.

Q: As charter schools are a relatively new concept in education, were there significant legal precedents for converting regular public schools to public charter schools?

A: We did not convert Sacramento High School into a charter school. The school board made the decision to close down Sacramento High School and award us a charter with the building the old school was in. Initially, the decision of the court was that a school district does not control its property and held that the building is the school rather than the educational program operating in the building. This decision was without precedent and was found to be wrong. The key element is that this was not a conversion; it was a start up of a new school.

Q: What are the requirements for the conversion and/or start-up of a public charter school?

A: Students have to sign up to attend the new school. We concede that eighty percent of the students that came to the new school attended the old school, but there is no doubt that it was an enrollment campaign to get the students to sign up. The start up of a new school includes: new employee hiring, adoption of a new curriculum, new rules and regulations, and new classes for students.

A conversion of an existing public school into a public charter school in the state of California requires a vote of fifty percent of the tenured faculty because they are choosing to reconstruct the school and still work at it. A valid application for a start-up charter can be brought by a group of parents that represent half of the population of students that are going to attend that school. This would allow for a charter school to be put before a local school district for a vote.

Q: Did existing teachers working for the school district get the opportunity to work for St. H.O.P.E. Public Schools? What were the hiring criteria?

A: St. H.O.P.E. Public Schools is a new employer, so we invited an application for every teacher that taught at the old Sacramento High School, and some elected to apply for the position. Applicants went through a competitive process. Teachers were hired based on teaching experience, dedication to the mission of the new school, and their qualifications. Out of the 80 teachers working at the old Sacramento High School, four or five of those teachers were hired.

Q: What rights do St. H.O.P.E. Teachers currently have? Do teachers have a contract?

A: St. H.O.P.E. teachers enjoy the same employment rights as any employee under labor law. They have a one-year contract with the school district and they have a performance evaluation. We feel that this benefits the students because it holds educators responsible for getting results in the classroom. Educators are evaluated according to their performance. There is not a tenure system in this school, so there's not a sense of entitlement to the job because of the duration in which the teachers have been performing. It's a performance based evaluation system, which is probably more important than the contract.

Q: Is there room in the current charter school system for improvement in employment and labor regulations? How are the teachers evaluated?

A: We are a new school system, so I believe we will always have room for improvement. There is much supervision at the state level by the state board of education, which consists of value-added performance evaluations. These are performance evaluations that take into consideration the outcomes of the students when assessing the quality of the performance of the teachers.

Q: How could labor and employment practices at regular public schools be improved? What would you suggest to improve their current system?

A: The lack of reform is due to the negotiated collective bargaining agreement that the administration of school districts has with the teachers' unions. The schools are evaluated by the state based on student test scores. However, the California Teacher's Association negotiated for a statute in the California Education Code not to include test scores in evaluating teachers[2]. There are additional specifications, which include the following: the number of minutes a teacher stays in the classroom, the academic calendar that a teacher can instruct in, and the allocation of cost of living adjustments given by the state. The implication of the financial provisions in these agreements is that any increase in state money may fail to make it to the classroom.

Unions have a political apparatus with the school boards. They are the single largest financial supporter of school board races, which determine who the elected leadership is on the school boards. Therefore, school administrators are put between a rock and a hard place and have to demonstrate tremendous courage in order to renegotiate these agreements, and usually will just get fired rather then there being any substantive change. I believe that the only way reform on collective bargaining would get to the legislature would be by a Democrat raising the issue. There are statewide issues that are driving these local collective bargaining agreements, but there is not the political will in the legislature to deal with these issues because of the role of unions in funding politicians' campaigns.

I would encourage the Governor to identify the provisions in collective bargaining agreements that create barriers to school reform. I would also encourage the Governor to negotiate local contracts with regions of school districts that have similar provisions in their collective bargaining agreements that are thwarting education reform. The problem is that school districts have put their backs against the wall and negotiated bad agreements. Therefore, what I suggest is that the Governor take action to allow the districts to gain control in implementing the reforms that the contracts are thwarting.

Q: Since the opening of the new Sacramento high school, what is your relationship with the Governor?

A: The new Governor has been very supportive. He was at the campus in July to announce a federal grant to the State of California, which allows the creation of more charter schools. His staff has come to visit us on many occasions. At the time at which we were going through the battle for Sacramento High School, the Governor asked me to serve on his education committee and co-chair his education committee. Governor Schwarzenegger sees the effort at Sacramento High School as an ideal partnership between business and education. It is an atmosphere of accountability that emphasizes the local control of the school and its leaders as C.E.O's of their plan, responsible for budget and accountable for student achievement.

[1] A charter school is a public school, which is authorized by the state of California and is designed to provide teachers, educators, community members, and parents an opportunity to organize schools under the auspices of their local school district or county office of education.

[2] California Education Code § 44662 (2004)