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Law and Discretion in California Charter School Oversight


Over the past 25 years, charter schools have grown rapidly both in number and in popularity through market reforms to education at federal, state, and local district levels. With this rise has come a practical and scholarly focus on charter school quality, approached primarily through the proxy of comparative student performance on standardized tests. While results from these inquiries are mixed, substandard or mediocre charter performance poses a legitimacy problem for the charter school as a reform that merits additional investment. If charters do no better than traditional public schools, how do politicians and advocates justify their continued operation or expansion?

One strategy to ensure charter quality has been to attend to oversight responsibilities carried out by local and state authorizers. Existing literature on these authorizers has taken a predominantly comparative approach, mapping the oversight structures that emerge in a decentralized regulatory environment with significant legal diversity regarding charter schools. Yet gaps remain in our understanding of how diverse authorizers (particularly within the same state), understand and act on school quality, and in how piecemeal regulatory decisions shape larger educational landscapes and opportunities.

To address such gaps, this project trains a sociolegal lens on oversight fora and its participants. How do formal legal requirements shape the local practice of charter oversight? How does embedded discretion affect regulatory processes surrounding compliance and quality judgments? How do alternative ideas of school quality intersect with legal understandings? These questions are grounded by two theoretical concepts: (1) institutional logics- motivating ‘idea bundles’ present in the organizational field and the strategic actions of participants, and (2) the ‘law in action’ paradigm that sees law as a dynamic tool at work both within and beyond its traditional structures. This project stands as a counterpoint to existing research on charter quality that focuses on student performance and measurement outcomes.

This study examines the role of law as a primary institutional logic of charter oversight in California, the state with the largest and arguably most diverse population of charter schools in the nation. I focus on charter establishment and renewal petitions to understand how authorizers approach and enact determination of school quality and operational fitness, and how these moments reflect interaction and competition of institutional logics. I examine the participation of different actors and their arguments, finding evidence for three motivating logics of oversight: the legal, the educational, and the market logic. I track how a sample of diverse charter authorizers- from the local district level to the State Board of Education, respond to these arguments and decide to open or to close schools. The project relies on multiple sources, including demographic data on California’s 327 charter authorizers and more than 1,200 charter schools (as of 2017); minutes from local, county, and state oversight fora; 31 interviews and three case studies of specific oversight actions. I also draw on materials relevant to charter operation and oversight, including legal opinions, materials from advocacy organizations, and charter petitions and renewal documents.

The first chapter provides background on the demographics of charter schools and the oversight structure in California. Chapter 2 reviews the previous research on charter quality and oversight and delves into the conceptual approaches mentioned briefly above. Chapter 3 presents the research design and methodological strategies.

Chapter 4 situates oversight within the organizational and strategic action field of charter schools. It explores the participants, logics, and boundaries revealed in the practice oversight: a contrast to the orderly portrait of regulation suggested by existing legal provision, or “law on the books.” Chapter 5 examines local discretion in chartering decisions and the role of competing logics therein. Chapter 6 focuses on the legalization of the oversight process and the consequences for participants; it also examines law as material resources distributed unequally among charters and the resistance potential contained within the legal logic. Chapter 7 discusses the implications of the research: both theoretically- in thinking about how institutional logics interact to structure the regulatory environment, and practically- for authorizers, charter operators and school communities.

The study’s findings challenge the prevalent notion that charter quality is an objective organizational fact. It presents evidence that authorizers’ decisions reflect conflicting institutional currents now present in larger charter environment as well as material disparities among schools. I conclude that the current legal framework of charter oversight in California creates an open stage for actors to debate the nuances and sources of school quality, the suitability of market logics in public structures, and the legitimacy of the charter form itself. On such a stage, law is a dynamic tool in the hands of diverse participants, permitting mobilization toward different ends: arguing for increased market reforms to education, shoring up historic arrangements of local control, or even resisting the erosion of traditional public provision. Following from research in the law and society movement, law also emerges as an unequally distributed material resource, with advantages accruing to the “repeat players” while disadvantaging the position of less-resourced schools and communities. This work has implications for theories of how law unfolds in the unique organizational context of public education, as well as for the construction of equitable and democratic charter oversight structures.

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