By Kelsey Mesher, Mountain View Voice Staff
Charter schools, sometimes a thorn in the side of public school districts, received a pat on the back from none other than the state's top educator, Jack O'Connell, at a special charter school summit for local educators held Saturday at the county Office of Education in San Jose.
O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, said charters have an "obligation" to serve students looking for alternatives to traditional public schools.
"Without question, charter schools are helping us meet those diverse needs of our students," he said.
The summit, organized by a task force from the county Office of Education, brought together hundreds of local educators to learn more about "the rapid growth of charter schools" and how they can coexist with neighborhood schools.
Charter schools are funded publicly, but unlike traditional public schools they are exempt from many state laws and regulations. They are typically started by a group of teachers, parents or community members, and sponsored by a local school or county board that outlines an agreement, or "charter," for how the new school will be run.
According to O'Connell, by September of this year there will be 858 charter schools in California.
The traditional model, he said, "is not for everybody."
"We want our charter schools to provide options and choices in our communities," he said.
Russlynn H. Ali, assistant secretary of civil rights for the U.S. Department of Education, delivered the keynote address at the summit.
"Charters ... are really about closing the achievement gap," she said, adding that educating lower achieving students, who are more likely to be Hispanic or black, is "an economic imperative."
"Charters can help achieve goals to turn around low performing schools," she said."
Ali said there is much misinformation surrounding charters: "Too many equate charters with privatization of schools. Instead of standing apart, charters should be partnering with districts."
"Charter schools are public schools," she added. "They are open to any student."
Mountain View Whisman School District trustee Ellen Wheeler, who attended Saturday's summit, said the majority of her board is "interested in looking into a K-8 charter."
"We're at the very beginning of conversation," she said, emphasizing that there are no plans yet. "We are open to ideas and open to choice."
Enthusiasm is presumably less strong among leaders of the neighboring Los Altos School District, where contention and strife -- including legal action -- have been the norm ever since Bullis Charter School was authorized by the county Board of Education in 2003. That charter was initiated by a group of frustrated Los Altos Hills parents whose neighborhood school, Bullis-Purissima, had been closed by the district.
Craig Goldman, chief financial officer for Mountain View Whisman, called Bullis an "anomaly" in the charter world. He said if there were to be a charter in Mountain View, most likely it would differ from Bullis in that it would be started by the district itself, rather than by parents.
"There hasn't been any real movement along those lines, which honestly I think is a great nod to our district," Goldman said. "If a charter were to happen it would be at the initiation of the district in terms of adopting a research-based, proven approach to improving student achievement."
Wheeler mentioned the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, as a possible model for how a Mountain View charter could look. KIPP operates a network of 82 charters in 19 states, and according to its Web site more than 80 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch.