New School Elementary Expansion Stymied, Future in Jeopardy

in by

Earlier this fall, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously denied the New School of San Francisco’s charter school re-authorization request. Launched on Potrero Hill in 2015, currently serving kindergarten through fifth graders, New School had applied to expand to the eighth grade. The Board rejected that appeal and refused to reauthorize the school’s existing kindergarten through fifth grade charter.

New School has appealed to the California Department of Education to overturn the denials. A decision is expected early next year. If the State doesn’t reverse the Board’s decision, 288 students may be forced to pursue their education elsewhere.

“We submitted our petition for re-authorization in June with two significant changes…a preference in our lottery for low-income families; and an extension to serve grades K-8,” New School’s website states. “While our petition has always been for a K-12 school, our first charter only covered grades K-5, so this charter needed to outline the plan for the next set of grades. The District attempted to separate grades 6-8 from K-5 – though there were no clear legal grounds for doing this – and ultimately denied all of K-8, despite no legal findings and a recommendation from their staff to approve K-5.”  

San Francisco Board of Education denial of charter school applications isn’t unusual. In what’s become almost routine, charter schools apply to the Board, their application is rejected, the charter appeals, and the State Board of Education overturns San Francisco’s decision. As reported by the San Francisco Examiner, four of the City’s 16 charter schools – two more will be added next year – have had their applications repudiated by San Francisco only to have the State reverse the outcome. New School’s initial 2015 charter application was refused by San Francisco before being unanimously approved by the 10-member State Board.

Charter schools have long been controversial. In 2000, the passage of Proposition 39 required California school districts to make facilities available to all public school students, whether they’re enrolled in charter or traditional public schools. To avoid having to build new campuses, school districts typically co-locate charter schools with non-charters. This arrangement can draw the ire of traditional public schools, which may have to make space on a site they previously called their own.   

New School shares its 655 De Haro Street campus with San Francisco International High School. New School’s Head of School Emily Bobel Kilduff described the two institutions’ relationship as being generally positive while noting that space is tight. 

“Co-locating with anyone is challenging and the differences in our student populations have enhanced those challenges,” Tara Hobson, SF International High School principal, said.

SFUSD reported that in the 2019-20 academic year 53,855 students are enrolled in traditional public schools.  According to the San Francisco Examiner another 6,700 students attend charter schools.  A 2018 SFUSD demographic study indicates that more than twice that many San Francisco children go to private school; likely in excess of 13,000 students.  

To their proponents, charters offer a tuition-free alternative to costly private schools, the recourse for parents nationwide dissatisfied with educational opportunities offered at traditional public schools. Charter schools are promoted as stimulating a market-like competition of ideas and educational models that spur greater academic achievement and increase the caliber of education. 

Opponents portray charter school operators as being insufficiently-regulated often out-of-town profiteers that divest school districts of resources and siphon off high-achieving students, leaving traditional public schools in perilous financial straits and at risk of decreased average standardized test scores.

SFUSD School Board members are openly hostile to charter schools. “It’s hard enough to manage schools that you technically don’t manage,” Alison Collins, elected to the Board in 2018, was quoted by the San Francisco Examiner. “When their [charters] authorization is in Sacramento, it’s impossible.” 

“SF is not for SALE! Don’t let an unapproved KIPP school displace immigrants and students of color,” a website of San Francisco Families Union, a group Collins co-founded, proclaims. 

“They [charters] are not reaching the hardest to serve students,” Board member Mark Sanchez, said in a 2018 San Francisco Public Press article. “…state laws around charters really disadvantage local districts.” 

Four out of 11 San Francisco Board of Supervisor members are former School Board members. District 10 Supervisor Shamman Walton, a former school board member, was quoted in a 2018 San Francisco Examiner article in reference to charter schools as saying, “Imagine what we could do together if we didn’t have the division that exists [with] two public education systems…We will not let anyone define our narrative; no outsiders from other communities, and not people that don’t live or participate in this village.”

In contrast, the State Board of Education has been generally sympathetic to charters. The local-state dynamic is likely to change with the October passage of Assembly Bill 1505 which goes into effect July 1, 2020. The law enhances local school boards’ authority to determine charters’ fate, including by explicitly permitting them to consider new charter schools’ financial impacts on the district; and limits charters’ ability to appeal local decisions to the State.

Unlike most areas of the country, where students attend the public school closest to them geographically, San Francisco’s lottery system employs a complex choice ranking system that often sends students to schools well outside their zip codes. Traditional public, charter, and private schools offer an array of selections, but accessing them can require sophistication and resources. 

“The risk of not being re-authorized at the State is very low,” states New School’s website. “It would be unprecedented to shut down a high performing school with engaged families; we cannot find an example of this happening. In addition, we have a strong working relationship with the California Department of Education to date, impressive outcomes, and a very compelling case to make about why middle school expansion is beneficial and necessary for our families. Having said this, we are not taking anything for granted and will continue to pursue every avenue to ensure a successful appeal.”