The Franklin-McKinley School District on Tuesday voted 3-2 to deny the K-8 Cornerstone Academy Preparatory School’s charter petition, igniting backlash from from families and employees who vow to fight the impending closure.
“I’m really angry,” Cornerstone Academy CEO Shara Hedge says. “When I founded the school almost 11 years ago, I had a vision of creating a high-performing school for families of Franklin-McKinley. We are deeply saddened and hurt and surprised by this decision. … We 100 percent did not expect this.”
The school board’s vote went against the district’s recommendation to keep the school open. Everything was lined up for approval, Hedge says: the MOU, facilities agreement and draft charter renewal. The resolution to deny came out of left field, she says.
At the meeting, the board first voted against renewing the charter petition. Since the charter would still automatically re-up if the board doesn’t explicitly vote to deny it, trustees took a second vote to put the nail in the coffin.
The board then prevented attendees from voicing concerns after the vote. “It’s unfair,” Cornerstone families hollered at trustees during the meeting. “We did not have the opportunity to review this resolution before the meeting,” Hedge recounts. “Our parents were denied the opportunity to speak on this when it came up at the last minute.”
And Cornerstone officials say that the board’s stated reasons for denying the petition are disingenuous. According to the board, the charter submitted by umbrella organization Alpha Public Schools failed to enroll enough Latino students compared to the broader school district. “It’s required by the California Department of Education,” board President Rudy Rodriguez says. “It’s not voluntary.” Almost 60 percent of the school district’s students are Latino compared to just 30 percent of Cornerstone’s.
Cornerstone officials acknowledge the disparity and say they’ve been actively recruiting students from all backgrounds. “We don’t match up perfectly with the district’s demographics,” Alpha Public Schools CEO John Glover says. “We are required by law to actively recruit students across a range of ethnicities, and we do that. We don’t have total control over who shows up.”
Glover says the board is so fixated on the charter school’s demographics compared to the school district’s that they overlook Cornerstone’s academic achievements. “Why was our two-time California distinguished school ignored?” Hedge asks. “We are a stalwart in the community. I just want to know why it’s OK to just rip that away from them.”
At Cornerstone, for example, Latino students scored 265 percent higher in English language mastery on standardized tests than district schools. Cornerstone’s disabled students outperform district schools, too, scoring 190 percent higher in math in 2019.
Still, the board expressed concern with the math proficiency of Cornerstone’s disabled students. Almost 50 percent of students with disabilities at the charter failed to meet math standards in 2019. That’s a 27 percent increase from 2017.
Glover says he has “never ever seen a district or any other authorizer look at the percentage of students at the bottom quartile over a period of time. It’s disingenuous.”
The board also accused Cornerstone of excluding students with moderate or severe disabilities. Glover says he’s perplexed with the board’s rationale. “It was never clear to us what they meant by ‘moderate’ and ‘severe,’” he says. “We don’t submit classifications of students beyond ‘students with disabilities.’”
Cornerstone officials say that students with disabilities like autism, learning disability and speech language impairments have attended Cornerstone over the least three years. Currently, 40 students with disabilities attend the charter academy.
Charter officials say they will appeal the denial to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. “Students came in with a lot of questions,” Cornerstone Principal Marion Dickel says. “The hard thing for me is that teachers came to me and asked, ‘What do we tell them?’ I didn’t have a good answer for teachers, other than the fact that we are here to stay, we are going to fight [and we will] go to the county and get this overturned.”
Charters have become major players in the public education system since California passed the Charter Schools Act in 1992. Legislators granted them more leeway in hopes that they’ll create more innovative curricula and learning models.
But public school districts have increasingly pushed back in recent years out of concern that the law has created an uneven playing field.
“That’s how the legislation was set up—it created an adversarial situation between public schools and charter schools where the rules don’t apply equally—all the latitudes that has been given to charter schools and none given to us,” Franklin-McKinley Superintendent Juan Cruz says. “They don’t have to abide by all the rules and regulations that we do and they get to claim to be better than us.”
School districts also see charters as a drain on their resources. “When kids leave and go to charter schools, our staffing doesn’t go down at the same rate the kids leave,” East Side Union High School District Superintendent Chris Funk explains. “That’s why we said, give us a mechanism to say, ‘No more.’ Because it increases our fiscal instability.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom has approved a series of laws this past year to regulate charter schools. Earlier this month, he signed AB 1505, which allows public school trustees to deny a charter petition based on its fiscal impacts to the authorizing district.
SB 126 mandates open meetings and requiring charters to respond to all public records requests. Meanwhile, AB 1506 is making its way through the state legislature. If approved, it would prohibit public school agencies from authorizing a new charter unless an existing one in its jurisdiction closes first.