California’s AB 917 Puts Charter Schools in Jeopardy

A bill requiring charter school supporters to seek consent from both unionized school employees and teachers before establishing charter schools recently passed the California state Assembly, creating a potential roadblock to future charter school expansion.

Currently, to create a new charter school at least 50 percent of parents expecting to enroll their children in the school or 50 percent of teachers expecting to work at the school must approve the charter petition. To convert an existing public school to a charter school, at least half the teachers working at the school must sign the petition.

Under the new bill, at least 50 percent of teachers and school staff, including custodians and cafeteria workers, will need to support both the conversion of public to charter schools and the establishment of new charter schools in order for either process to occur.

Proponents of the bill claim that it is important for every individual involved in school operation to have a say in crucial decisions. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said it would allow “employees who play a vital role in the education of our kids, whether they’re in the classroom or not, to have a voice in whether we convert or create a new charter school.”

Republicans and democrats alike, however, believe the bill will stymie the creation of charter schools by creating potential gridlock among school employees. Teachers often lead efforts to convert schools to charters in order to bypass red tape that prevents them from optimally educating their students. Lower-level employees such as custodians and bus drivers will be unmotivated by such concerns, making them less likely to approve drastic and potentially inconvenient changes to their workplace structure.

Even Governor Brown is unlikely to support the bill. He vetoed a nearly indistinguishable bill in 2011, writing in his veto message that “this bill would unnecessarily complicate an already difficult charter school petition process.”

Unsurprisingly, the Service Employees International Union, the California Federation of Teachers, and the California School Employees Association all support the bill. Teachers unions have generally failed to organize non-union charter school employees, so the next step is to limit charter school expansion altogether. Thus, the bill is simply a way for teachers unions to advance their agenda, under the guise of benevolence and inclusion.