Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, a likely candidate for state attorney general next year, talked Wednesday about his latest calling -- charter schools -- to a group of fellow enthusiasts for the independently operated public campuses.
"Each year this movement gets stronger," the former California governor told a gathering of the California Charter Schools Assn. in Pasadena. "Of course, the opposition takes even greater aim" as charters continue to proliferate in the state and parts of the nation.
Charters, which are publicly funded, are allowed greater flexibility and freedom from some state and school district requirements. In return, they are expected to improve student achievement through innovative programs. There are 512 charter schools in California.
A recent federal study of fourth-graders found mixed results: Charter students did as well as their traditional-school counterparts in reading but trailed in math. A Harvard University study, released early last year, concluded that charter students were doing better than other students in both subjects.
In Oakland, where the schools are in crisis, charters are especially popular, and Brown helped establish two of them: the Oakland Military Institute, which opened in the fall of 2001, and the Oakland School for the Arts, which began a year later. Both offer college-preparatory curricula and both outperform most district-run high schools.
Brown has accepted some indirect blame for the district's turmoil, acknowledging that his three appointees to the Oakland Unified School District board shared responsibility with the elected members for the financial troubles that prompted a state takeover the previous year. There were also repeated clashes between the elected members and Brown's appointees, who were not replaced when their terms ended.
"We're in a world where competition is the rule," Brown told the gathering in explaining why he backs charters. He said they provide flexibility for the public education system and choices for students and parents, adding that they will succeed only if parents are satisfied.
"Freedom of individual choice is the heart of the charter movement," said Brown, noting that the two schools he helped found offer different approaches and appeal to different types of students.
Both schools exceeded their growth targets on the state-mandated California Academic Performance Index this year. Oakland Military Institute, with 400 students in grades six through 10, scored 628 last year, while Oakland School for the Arts, which has 254 students in grades nine through 11, scored 753. (Both schools are adding a grade level each year until they include the 12th grade.) The state's goal for all its public schools is 800, but most district-run large high schools in Oakland scored in the 400s or 500s.
Brown had to fight hard for the military school, his first charter. Both the district and Alameda the County Office of Education rejected the charter, and Brown went to the state Board of Education to get approval.
Brown, who as the state's Democratic governor signed the 1975 collective bargaining law for teachers, also battled the California Teachers Assn., one of the charter movement's strongest critics, over the group's failed 1999 campaign to require that charter schools be unionized. At that time, the former governor, known for his unconventional actions and a penchant for reinventing himself, called the CTA "an educational Goliath."
On Wednesday, he warned charter school backers that the CTA and other critics of the movement would not give up their fight to have charters more strongly regulated. Brown said he successfully lobbied Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year to veto legislation that would have prohibited charter schools from dropping students who did not meet their academic standards.
"How can we hold schools accountable if we don't allow schools to hold their students accountable?" Brown said, alluding to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for sanctioning schools whose students do not meet expected achievement levels.