Thousands of California students were left to look for new schools after one of the nation's largest charter school operators shut its doors last month.
The closure of the 5-year-old California Charter Academy, which ran about 60 schools under four charters and enrolled some 10,000 students, represents one of the largest charter school failures since the nation's first such independent public school opened in 1991.
Word of the closing came shortly before other unfavorable publicity for the charter movement: release of a national study that cast doubt on student performance in charter schools. ("AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate," this issue.)
But the news was not all bad in California, where many charter advocates were happy to see CCA shut its schools. They said its sloppy management and abuse of state regulations had hurt the movement.
"There's a sigh of relief from within the charter school community because this one bad apple has been held accountable," said Gary L. Larson, the spokesman for the Los Angeles-based California Charter Schools Association.
"This is just another wake-up call," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington, which supports charter schools. "It's another symptom of things that can go wrong if people aren't careful."
As of last week, the state and the districts that had issued the charters were still trying to find attendance records and get in touch with the students who had attended CCA schools to give them information about other charter and regular public schools in their neighborhoods. A significant number of the students were believed to be over age 19 and might not be eligible to enroll in regular schools.
Administrators in some of the CCA charter schools have been scrambling to apply for new charters so that they can reopen their schools for this school year.
"It's going to be a challenge to get out of the CCA stigma, but we're going to make it work," said Charlotte Austin-Jordan, the principal of the Save Our Future school in Los Angeles.
In July, the Victorville, Calif.-based charter-management group announced that it was shutting 38 schools after the districts that had issued the charters under which they operated began laying the groundwork to revoke them. Then, in early August, CCA announced it was closing the remaining schools and relinquishing all four of its charters.
CCA officials did not return calls for comment, and the CCA Web site has shut down. Meanwhile, California officials have broadened an ongoing investigation into the group's finances to find out whether CCA had paid school employees' health-insurance bills for two months before officially shutting down. ("Calif., 2 Counties Team Up in Charter School Probe," June 23, 2004.)
Ann Bancroft, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, confirmed last week that all the schools operating under CCA charters had been closed. The department did not know yet how many of those schools might apply to reopen under new charters.
Signs of Trouble
Although the downfall of California Charter Academy appeared to come only weeks after the first hints of its troubles reached students and teachers, the unraveling of the charter-management group apparently began more than two years ago.
Administrators for some schools in the CCA network say they had persistent problems with the company's management. They say the CCA paid bills late, or not at all, and they add that they were denied supplies and money for salaries.
"If I had to grade them, I would have given them a double F," Ms. Austin-Jordan said.
Led by Chief Executive Officer C. Steven Cox, CCA focused on opening high schools that helped students who had dropped out, or who were failing in traditional public schools.
The group offered a traditional curriculum and opportunities for work experience. According to state officials, though, Mr. Cox was also believed to be operating a for-profit management group that CCA had contracted with--a relationship that would have been illegal.
After questions about CCA were raised in the media, the California legislature passed a law in 2002 that required all charter schools to be located in the district that authorized them. Many CCA schools were located hundreds of miles outside their authorizing districts. Later, lawmakers passed a law to deny funds to schools that were teaching students over the age of 18 who had not been enrolled in public schools.
In March, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell ordered an audit and an investigation of CCA's financial and enrollment records, in part to examine the ages of its students. Mr. O'Connell announced last month that the state would also review the company's assets.
Mr. O'Connell directed superintendents in Orange and San Bernardino counties, where the districts that granted the charters to CCA are located, to ensure that the displaced CCA students were notified of alternatives for continuing their schooling.
The situation has become an administrative headache for some of those districts.
Robert L. French, the superintendent of the 32,000-student Orange Unified School District, was not working for the district when its board approved a CCA charter in March 2000. But he was wary of the arrangement when he started his job in July 2002. Not only was he concerned about the CCA schools' academic standards, but it worried him that most of the CCA schools were miles away.
He investigated and found that the charter schools' attendance records simply "didn't make sense," and he claimed that CCA had illegally converted a private school into a charter school.
In August of last year, Mr. French said, he met with CCA officials, but couldn't get complete answers to his questions.
The Orange Unified board met in a special session on Aug. 2 of this year and revoked the charter. Mr. French and his staff have posted signs on all the CCA schools' doors that state that the schools will not reopen and that give information about other schools in their areas.
He plans to send letters to each student, but said that as of last week he had not received complete attendance records or students' addresses.
'A Catastrophic Action'
Ken Larson, the superintendent of the 150-student Oro Grande Elementary School District in San Bernardino County, whose district granted one of CCA's charters in 2001, said CCA officials had convinced him that they would do a good job educating students who had not done well in regular public schools.
His district also hired a part-time reading specialist with the state money it earned for its role in overseeing the charter.
The superintendent said that he was surprised at how quickly the group opened 24 schools under the charter, and said that he had had to hire consultants to visit some of the locations that were hundreds of miles away.
"I'm very sorry and disappointed for the students and the employees," Mr. Larson said. The demise of CCA, he said, "is really a catastrophic action."
Mr. Finn of the Fordham Foundation contended that the districts that granted the charters were not equipped to oversee the schools that they had chartered.
"We have to assume some operators won't behave," he said. "So the sponsors have to keep guard."
The California Charter Schools Association has been critical of California laws that allow only school districts or county offices of education to grant charters, because some districts, it says, are reluctant to step into an area that they see as competition for their services. The restrictions on chartering authority, according to the association, drew many schools to contract with CCA and become part of its charter school network without getting charters from their local districts.
A bill that would allow public colleges and universities to authorize charters has stalled in the legislature this year.
Meanwhile, the California association said it is trying to help the Save Our Future school and other good schools that were caught in a bad situation find a way to stay open.