Charter Schools

Here's What It's Like to Open a Charter School in California

Former lawmaker and school choice activist starts her own academy.

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Scholarship Prep
Provided by Gloria Romero

For those who care to actually pay attention, the charter school movement and the school choice movement writ large is not some plot by either the wealthy or by conservatives to destroy the public school system. While there are certainly wealthy and conservative people who want to flee the public schools, there are—particularly in urban centers—a significant number of parents who are neither wealthy nor conservative who are demanding a greater number of education choices for their children.

In California, major pushes to improve school choice for students came partly from the left, and former State Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat, was notable for her efforts to shepherd in policies that give parents more control over where and how their children would be schooled. She was motivated by seeing the stagnation of public school quality in areas that serve poor and minority students and the resistance by powerful education unions to reform. Romero has been involved in School Choice Week, and Reason interviewed her in 2013.

After a lengthy political and activist career supporting school choice, Romero is now putting her money where her mouth is. This fall sees the launch of a charter school co-founded by Romero in the heart of Santa Ana, California. Scholarship Prep Charter School opened at the end of August with enrollment of more than 300, serving students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The launch of her school, with its emphasis on serving poor students and particularly kids from foster homes, drew positive attention from the Wall Street Journal in a piece noting the many challenges in trying to actually start a charter school in California.

Romero spoke with Reason Wednesday morning about her shift from activist to school founder and the extraordinary difficulties in trying to open a charter school in an environment where public school defenders and union representative are arrayed against them.

Romero says she had been thinking about the possibility of launching a school for quite some time, reaching back as far as when she was term-limited out of the state Senate in 2010.

"People were telling me, 'You're always trying to reform schools; why not start your own?'" Romero says. "[The school] was probably years in the making." After seeing many charter schools launch in California and succeed, she decided to partner with Jason Watts of CharterBoost to help start her own.

The process took months and required a 300-page petition and a hunt for a facility to house the school (a church). Rather than attempting to get approval from Santa Ana Unified School District, Romero went to Orange County's Department of Education to help bypass an approval process where local resistance by entrenched public school interests can very much influence school board votes. Scholarship Prep Charter School was approved unanimously.

Gloria Romero
Scholarship Prep Charter School

But that's just a small part of the challenge. Charter schools are publicly funded schools, but Romero notes they're "funded as though we really are the little stepchildren of the public education system." The school has been awarded a $500,000 start-up grant, but as of the start of the school year, they've only gotten one check for $84,000. Romero has been putting some expenses on her own credit card and says there's now a niche market developing for short-term loans for charter schools as they attempt to navigate a complicated process of getting the money the schools have been promised.

"You get caught up in the bowels of the Sacramento educational bureaucracy," she says. "You have to try to navigate around a system that is set up financially to choke it until it fails. Those are issues that the traditional public schools will never have to face."

The rather vague name of Scholarship Prep Charter School explains what its goals are, Romero says. The foundation for the school is not on the "three R's" but the "three A's"—academics, athletics, and arts. Those three pathways Romero identified as the primary ways the lower-income students they serve can earn scholarships to attend college.

As the school year continues on, Romero will also have to prepare for efforts to shut it down, something every charter school must face. She said she's already been dealing with rumors being spread about the school—that the teachers aren't actually credentialed (they are) and that the school will start charging students next year (that's not how charter schools work). But she's confident that as long as the school actually teaches the students and the parents are supportive of the school, it will withstand criticism.

Speaking of criticism, HBO news show host John Oliver got a huge amount of attention for a recent segment that spoke harshly about the charter school system. Romero says that she "absolutely loves John Oliver" and said that some criticism of the charter system was warranted. She thinks some should be shut down and she's heard some "horror stories" about application processes at some schools to control enrollment. But she also felt that Oliver didn't really grasp either the fact that the deck is stacked against charter schools and that they are held to different standards of accountability than public schools.

"He failed to look at the vast majority of charters schools and the successes they're making, essentially with one hand tied behind their backs," Romero says. When charter schools fail, they're shut down, but "In the traditional school system, if you fail, nothing happens. If you financially fail, nothing happens."

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  1. “But she also felt that Oliver didn’t really grasp either the fact that the deck is stacked against charter schools and that they are held to different standards of accountability than public schools.”

    If Charter schools are about as proficient at teaching kids, then they should be the standard because they are cheaper. If charter schools are more proficient at teaching kids, then the Dept of Ed should definitely be dissolved.

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  2. that the teachers aren’t actually credentialed (they are)

    In a sane world the fact that none of your teachers went to ed school would be a selling point not a “dark rumor” started by your critics.

  3. Speaking of criticism, HBO news show host John Oliver got a huge amount of attention for a recent segment that spoke harshly about the charter school system. Romero says that she “absolutely loves John Oliver” and said that some criticism of the charter system was warranted. She thinks some should be shut down and she’s heard some “horror stories” about application processes at some schools to control enrollment. But she also felt that Oliver didn’t really grasp either the fact that the deck is stacked against charter schools and that they are held to different standards of accountability than public schools.

    An application process? At a school? I mean trying to ensure that the kids who go to a school are the best fit for it? The horror!!

    And John Oliver doesn’t grasp much of anything, because he is retarded. A room temperature IQ is not really conducive to having a mental grasp on much beyond the fact that you like cake.

    1. “How about you try that again Mr.Stewart Oliver, but this time, with a Brittish accent.”

  4. Kudos, Gloria!!

  5. “…not some plot by either the wealthy or by conservatives to destroy the public school system. While there are certainly wealthy and conservative people who want to flee the public schools, there are?particularly in urban centers?a significant number of parents who are neither wealthy nor conservative who are demanding a greater number of education choices for their children.”

    I suppose in some respects the point about wealthy parents might have had some relevance if wealthy parents were using the charter schools instead of the private schools and saving money for the taxpayers. Of course, they’d be saving taxpayer money by making the tax-paid schools of low enough quality the wealthy wouldn’t want them, but at least there would be an argument.

    But why would it be considered sinister if (non-wealthy) “conservative” parents use charter schools? Because it’s better if lefty parents use it?

    1. I’m speaking of how lefty public school advocates look at the issue, not based on what I think.

    2. The funny thing about that charge is that were the public school system ever to be destroyed, it would be poor people who would benefit the most or certainly suffer the least. The people who have an interest in the public school system continuing, other than the people who work for it, are the upper middle class. The upper middle class’ public schools are generally pretty good. The upper middle class does quite well with the public school system.

      Upper middle class Progressives love the public school system because it benefits their kids and by totally failing poor kids insulates their little darlings from a lot of competition.

  6. I’ve always been a reasonable man, and willing to compromise. And one to think outside of the box. So, collective schooling through base “3-R’s” literacy (5th grade?) and pure market after that. Anyone can try and provide that base literacy without certification/licensing, but if you consistently fail, the parents have a right to execute you.

    Win-win (win-win-win).

    1. I once sat down with a US Constitution and started paring away cruft to end up with my own, that had very little in common with the original.

      Along the way, it was very tempting to throw in cute little gimmicks like yours — one chamber elected by taxes paid, one by acres owned — make congress critters ombudsmen with special investigatory powers — but they were just that, gimmicks, and unnecessary. I left in just one — every voter can check a box to be a volunteer, and every district picks one such volunteer at random to be in the volunteer chamber.

      The problem with those gimmicks is they serve no real purpose, and they freeze in aspects that don’t survive the test of time. They are inflexible, become quaint, and end up as roadblocks.

      You are still thinking like a statist, as if you are convinced government must have some purpose, because … government! It’s like having ab elevator operator in an expensive hotel, just there for the ambience. You have to start from the other end, make everything justify its existence. It’s like having a committee to review old laws which have become useless, instead of sunsetting every law and require they all be passed from scratch.

    2. Public schools have done a huge amount of harm to this country. They have more than anything entrenched our credential driven and elitist system.

      Worse than that, they have caused millions of parents to lose interest in their children’s education. Pubic schools are in some ways welfare. Thanks to public schools, parents don’t have to worry about the education of their children because the state does it for them. And like all welfare that has engendered dependence. Parents no longer care about their kids’ education and think they can just drop them off at the school and let the state do it. This of course is utterly foolish and terrible for society. The person who knows best how to educate a child is almost always the parents of that child. The worst thing you can do is take the responsibility of doing that away from the parents, which is what public schools have done.

      I am ready to kill them. They have done tremendous harm to the country. Sadly, few people really understand that.

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