In this phase, the team focuses on securing the approval of their petition through outreach to the community and board members, and if necessary, appeals. This phase culminates with getting authorized.
Authorization Process Overview
What is an "Authorizer"?
California empowers three public governing boards with the authority to approve (or "authorize") charter schools: local district school boards, county school boards and the State Board of Education.
By far, the majority of charter schools are authorized by their local school district. That school district is then the authorizer. Some authorizers have well defined charter policies and procedures. It is important to learn the expectations of your district; it may be to your advantage to research past school board actions. You might also visit your district website; some post approved petitions and accompanying school board hearing minutes. If not posted, consider requesting local school board meeting minutes.
County and State Authorizers
If your charter petition is denied by your local school district, you have the right to appeal to the county, and then to the state. Developers need to be aware of the appeals process and expectations before they submit.
Charter schools can be approved directly by a county board of education or the State Board of Education and are referred to as countywide or statewide benefit schools, but there are some restrictions. See Countywide Benefit for more information.
Four Things You Should Know about Authorization Decisions
1) In order to open your school, you will need to write a charter petition. That petition will need to be authorized (in other words, approved) by the board of your local school district, the board of your county office of education, or the State Board of Education. Typically, teams start the process by trying to get authorized by their local school district, and if necessary, appeal the decision.
2) There are six legal reasons for a charter petition to be denied. Education Code Section 47605 is very clear:
"The governing board of the school district shall not deny a petition for the establishment of a charter school unless it makes written factual findings, specific to the particular petition, setting forth specific facts to support one or more of the following findings:
- The charter school presents an unsound educational program for the pupils to be enrolled in the charter school.
- The petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.
- The petition does not contain the number of signatures required by subdivision (a).
- The petition does not contain an affirmation of each of the conditions described in subdivision (d).
- The petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of the 15 elements.
- The petition does not contain a declaration of whether or not the charter school shall be deemed the exclusive public employer of the employees of the charter school.
3) While there are only six legal reasons for a charter petition to be denied, some school board members nonetheless consider other factors in their decision. To overcome this challenge, successful teams work with board members to get past their misconceptions, fill gaps in knowledge, and educate them on their responsibilities in the charter authorization process. Keep in mind that using any reason outside of those listed in Education Code to deny a charter runs contrary to charter law and is unacceptable.
4) Each school district and county office of education has its own local policies and practices. These may affect affirmations and other items that are required to be included in the petition, compliance with particular codes or policies, when they will accept and review petitions, their petition review processes, whether or not they require an interview with the team to assess capacity, when and for how long the team and its speakers will be allowed to address the board, and more. You should contact the authorizer in advance of submission to ensure that you have the most up to date information about their policies and practices.
Decision-Makers & People with Influence
Identify Decision-Makers and People with Influence in Your Community
School board members ultimately cast the vote to approve or deny your petition: in this case, they are the decision-makers. As publicly elected officials, they are accountable to voters, including parents, in their districts. You have the right and the responsibility to communicate with them directly about your charter's vision and mission for the community.
Depending on your community, people who influence the board members may include:
- Superintendent and district staff, who usually review the petition and make an official recommendation that it is approved or denied
- Other elected officials such as the mayor and city council
- Education experts
- Other community leaders such as clergy and nonprofit leaders
To identify these people, ask your team and other members of your community. Remember that while the district staff, including the superintendent, are key influencers, they do not make the final decision.
Understand Each Decision-Maker and Key Influencer
Once you have a list of your decision-makers and influencers, begin to assemble profiles that address these key questions:
- What do they care most about?
- What is their relationship to various influencers in your community?
- What has been their perspective on charter petitions in the past?
- What do they know about charter schools?
- Where are there gaps in their knowledge?
Additionally, find out how many charters exist in the district and the voting history of the district. For each decision-maker or influencer, consider their voting history, key donors, affiliation, family/career background, and their constituents. You can get this information by attending board meetings, reading board meeting minutes, following them in the news, asking other charter leaders and community members for insight, and ultimately getting to know them.
Based on the profile you create, determine which decision-makers are most, moderately, and least likely to be supportive. Keep in mind that for authorization, you need a majority of board members.
Update Your Communications & Outreach Plan
You may have developed a communications and outreach plan earlier in this process. Once you have an improved understanding of the decision-makers and influencers in your community, it is time to revise that plan to ensure that the right messages and messengers reach your decision-makers and influencers.
Start by identifying messages specific to your school that will address the potential questions and concerns that might be raised by members of the community, your district, and your school board. Topics might include:
- Your mission and program
- How you will serve ELL, special education, and low achieving students well
- How you are offering something substantially different or better than the existing options in your community
- The public random lottery, if demand exceeds space
- Outreach to diverse populations to ensure racial/ethnic balance
- Location of the school
- Fiscal sustainability
- Governing structure and whether or not your school will be independent
Then, craft messages emphasizing relevant points or aspects of your plan for various audiences, purposes, and mediums or outlets. Consider developing a one-page summary that can be distributed publicly that explains the need for the school using data, where possible; the mission and vision for the school; the targeted student population; grade levels; educational program; and community where the school would be located.
Identify the most appropriate communicator for each audience, especially with an eye towards decision-makers. Ensure that all of your communicators stay on message. They should advocate for your school in particular and be familiar with the contents of your one-pager, as well as frequently asked questions about charter schools.
If you haven't already, assign a public relations manager and create a schedule to ensure that messages go out at appropriate times and that communicators are in touch with their designated audiences. Consider strategies such as letter-writing and phone call campaigns as well as in-person meetings with decision-makers and influencers to ensure that they are consistently hearing from constituents demanding this school, and that they have the opportunity to get their questions answered and concerns addressed. Ensure that supporters, decision-makers, and influencers are all abreast of new developments as you move through the school development process.
Finally, proactively manage the media. Ensure that the messages the community is receiving about your school in the press align with the messages you are trying to convey. Strategies for proactively managing the media include letters to the editor along with positive, confident responses to interview requests. For additional information, see the following CCSA resources:
Public Hearings & Decision Hearings
Community Support Matters
Authorizer hearings are one of the ways that school board members judge how much community support exists for a new school. As a result, having a strong showing of parents, teachers, and community leaders is critical, even if you have been getting positive signals from district staff.
Most districts hold separate public and decision hearings. At the public hearing, there might be a discussion of the strengths and challenges in your proposal, or the district might just listen to your presentation. At the decision hearing, the school board will likely discuss your proposal before they vote to approve or deny the petition.
The procedures for each of these meetings will vary by district. For example, San Francisco Unified School District has been known to hold separate hearings for the education program, the budget, and then the decision. The Charter School Division at Los Angeles Unified School District regulates the petition submission and review, conducts a capacity hearing, and ultimately dictates the timelines for board action.
Once you understand your authorizer's procedures, determine the speakers and supporters that should be available at which meetings.
Presenting at Your Public Hearing
At the public hearing, the petitioner may be given time to make a formal presentation, with or without a projection. The time allotted for this presentation varies from district to district. If the team is offered the opportunity to present, the presentation should be consistently positive. It should be professional, easy to understand, and reviewed to ensure it is free of mistakes. Consider including:
- Evidence that your educational program is sound
- Why you are demonstrably likely to be able to implement your program as designed
- Strengths of your team and program
- Clarification of common misunderstandings and criticisms provided in a positive manner
- Information to address priorities and concerns of board members -
Selecting & Preparing Speakers to Help Make Your Case
While the presentation may be limited (or nonexistent) depending on your authorizer, public comment is an avenue that is always open to teams. These seven steps will help you make the most of public comment.
- Prepare supportive speakers that represent diverse perspectives (e.g. parents, community leaders, expert team members, and students if appropriate).
- Ensure all speakers are prepared with a script or notes.
- Practice the presentation, public comments, and responses to questions.
- Pair key messages with the appropriate messenger - for both the presentation and public comment.
- Check with your district to find out how long speakers will have (it is frequently limited to 2-3 minutes per speaker).
- Encourage speakers to arrive early. They may need to submit a card stating their intention to speak at the beginning of the meeting or before it begins.
- Remind speakers to remain positive, professional, and on-topic, regardless of what anyone else says or does.
In addition to speakers, packing the room with supporters can help to demonstrate the demand for your school. Successful teams consider issues that might prevent families from attending, such as child care, transportation, and food. Then, they prepare accordingly. At the hearing, be sure that your supporters are visible (some teams use colored shirts or posters) and ask them to stand to show their support during your presentation, even if they don't speak. If parents and community members are not able to attend the meetings, have them write letters, make phone calls, and show their support in other ways.
Again, it is important to keep in mind that the specific procedures for the public hearing vary from district to district. For this reason, it is important that the petitioner contact the district to understand them.
Keep Support Strong through the Decision Hearing
At the decision hearing, the school board members will vote to approve or deny the petition. The decision hearing is typically handled by district staff, with petitioners available to respond to questions from board members. Some districts allow for short presentations, but this should not be assumed. Before this meeting, the district staff will typically prepare a recommendation listing specific findings based on their review of the petition. If possible, the team should secure a copy of this as soon as possible and prepare specific written responses to each finding.
As with the public hearing, the team should prepare speakers and key messages to respond to questions and show support during public comment. Even if the team is not offered an opportunity to present or officially respond to the findings, public comment is always available and should be maximized.
At the decision hearing, it is especially essential that the team pack the room with supporters. A strong showing of support can have a significant influence on board members' votes, particularly if they have chosen not to make up their mind until information has been presented at this hearing.
Some districts include conditions to approval. Work with your local CCSA School Development representative to determine if they are reasonable and/or acceptable.
Appealing the Denial of Your Charter Petition
If your petition is denied by your school district, you have the right to appeal the decision. It is important to understand that your appeal will be of the decision itself. This means that you are not permitted to make substantial changes to the petition. Keep in mind that appeals are not available to countywide or statewide benefit charter petitions.
Findings of Fact
If your petition is denied, the board must adopt written "findings of fact" describing their rationale. These are often prepared by the staff and adopted by the board. If you do not get a copy before the decision hearing, you should quickly obtain a copy of their findings following the denial.
When pursuing an appeal, it is a best practice to assemble a packet of materials to submit to the county or state for your appeal. This packet should include:
- A letter that explains what has transpired, including dates of submission, hearings, meetings, and relevant conversations, and giving an overview of the grounds for the appeal. Keep in mind that the school is appealing the decision itself. Ensure that it is professional and fact-based.
- The original petition, including appendices, as it was submitted to the district.
- If permitted, appendices with non-material changes, such as an updated budget based on new state revenue allocations that have changed since the original submission. While the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, the State Board of Education, and some County Offices of Education will permit these additions, not all will. For this reason, it is important to contact the county or state in advance of submission.
- A document responding to each finding of fact. Responses should clarify or refer to the petition; they should not reflect significant changes to the content of the petition.
- Other items requested by the authorizer. Contact the authorizer early to verify their requirements.
County Appeals Process
After the district school board votes to deny the petition, the petitioners have 180 days to submit an appeal packet to the county. This packet should include the items described above. As at the district, it is important to obtain proof of the date of submission. The county is required to hold a public hearing within 30 days of receipt of the petition and to make a decision within 60 days of receipt of the petition. The additional 30 day extension is available if it is mutually agreed upon by the authorizer and petitioner. Throughout the appeals process, the team should outreach to the county staff and board as it did with the district.
State Appeals Process
In the past, state appeals have taken four to six months, depending on when the team applies. After the county school board votes to deny the petition, the petitioners have 180 days to submit an appeals packet to the state. Teams are encouraged to submit quickly, though, as it can take time to get on the State Board of Education agenda, and the State Board only meets every two months.
Once the team has submitted their packet, the California Department of Education will review the materials and make a recommendation that the petition be approved or denied. Then, the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools will review the materials and make a recommendation that the petition be approved or denied. Finally, the State Board of Education will vote to approve or deny the petition.
If you believe state appeals will be necessary, please reach out to your local CCSA School Development representative as soon as possible as it may impact your timeline, petition requirements, and authorization strategy.
Countywide Benefit & Statewide Benefit Charters
Countywide Benefit Charters
Countywide benefit is an option that enables a team or operator to submit a petition directly to the county office of education for the county where the school will be located. According to Education Code Section 47605.6, for a countywide benefit petition to be approved, the petition must demonstrate, among other things,
"that the educational services to be provided by the charter school will offer services to a pupil population that will benefit from those services and that cannot be served as well by a charter school that operates in only one school district in the county."
In addition to standard requirements, when seeking a countywide benefit, the petitioners are required to notify the school districts where the school would have a facility 30 days in advance of submitting the petition. Conversions are excluded from pursuing the countywide benefit option. If a petition for a countywide benefit charter is denied, there is no route for an administrative appeal.
As with district submissions, it is important to request and review any local policies or regulations, as the county may have adopted its own set of requirements. For example, the Santa Clara County Office of Education has adopted these Guidelines for Countywide Charter Approval. There are many examples of charter schools obtaining approval as a countywide benefit; for example, Fortune School of Education secured approval for 10 schools focused on reducing the African-American achievement gap in Sacramento County.
There are several challenges that accompany pursuit of this option. For some schools, it can be difficult to meet the requirements of Education Code for countywide benefits. The political environment can also impact success of this strategy. Additionally, the lack of an appeals route can impact timelines, as well as funding sources that hinge on petition submission and approval. Once approved, some schools have reported difficulty obtaining separate CDS codes for each school which can impact reporting, accountability and the school's ability to pursue funding for each school. Others have avoided this challenge by seeking separate approvals for each proposed school. All of these and other likely risks and benefits should be considered when determining whether or not to pursue this strategy.
If you are considering submitting a countywide benefit charter, it is highly recommended that you consult with your local CCSA School Development representative as soon as possible.
Statewide Benefit Charters
Statewide benefit is another authorization means, but with significant limitations. Under Education Code Section 47605.8, the State Board of Education may authorize a five-year charter for the operation of a charter school that will "provide instructional services of statewide benefit that cannot be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district, or only in one county." Statewide benefit charters must adhere to all other charter laws with the exception of geographic limitations.
Very few organizations have sought to meet the State Board of Education (SBE) administrative regulations in the past. Education Code Section 47605.8 should be consulted before proceeding. As of 2014, only one organization is operating under this structure in California. Legal challenges to statewide benefit charter authorization and the SBE's regulations include CSBA et al. v. State Board of Education (Aspire).
If you are considering submitting a statewide benefit charter, it is highly recommended that you consult with your local CCSA School Development representative as soon as possible
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