Ahead of a slew of proposed legislation that would reign in charter school growth statewide, a consortium of local business owners are seeking to establish a charter high school in central Bakersfield that would focus on business and entrepreneurship.
The group, Innovative Entrepreneur Education, formed in August and submitted a petition in March to the Kern High School District to open by 2020. That group’s petition, requesting district officials review its proposal, is the first step toward opening the charter’s doors.
The proposed Entrepreneur High School would offer an education geared toward understanding business and practical life experiences, according to the petition.
“All of our classes are geared to fostering real world skills: critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration,” Donna Schwartz, the president of the board of directors for the charter school, said during a KHSD board meeting in March. “Students will learn to work hard, think outside the box, be team players and not afraid to try new things.”
KHSD Trustee Jeff Flores said he would keep an open mind about the charter, but added that the proposal has “a pretty narrow focus.”
THE FUTURE OF CHARTER SCHOOLS IN CALIFORNIA
For years, charter schools in California have enjoyed unfettered growth and limited oversight — something former Governor Jerry Brown afforded the institutions as a way to encourage competition and growth among public schools. If local districts denied charter proposals, Brown’s state board of education would typically approve it on appeal.
But Brown’s successor, Governor Gavin Newsom, has signaled that he plans to create more transparency in how charters operate by signing into law Senate Bill 126 last month and has been supportive of legislation that would effectively place a moratorium on new charters.
Assembly Bill 1505, if passed, would give local districts sole authority to approve or deny new charters, eliminating the appeals process so many charters have relied upon.
In a district like Kern High, which Schwartz characterized as “not charter-friendly,” this could be the last opportunity charters have to petition for a school and take advantage of an appeals process that has historically boded well for them.
Schwartz said she’s unsure whether the board will vote to approve her school, but added that she will rely upon current laws to appeal if the district denies her proposal.
“I can go to Kern County Superintendent of Schools, and I can go to the state. There are other options,” Schwartz said.
This isn’t the first time the KHSD Board of Trustees has reviewed a charter petition.
A charter school petition was filed in 2009 for the Barack H. Obama Leadership Academy, KHSD spokeswoman Erin Briscoe told South Kern Sol. The board voted to deny the petition in December of 2009, due to several reasons including concerns about fiscal stability; the lack of depth and description of educational programs; and the petition did not contain “reasonably comprehensive descriptions” of elements required by California Education code 47605, the establishment of charter schools.
Other charter school petitions were filed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Briscoe said. Those filing the petition either did not follow through with the petition process, or the petitions were not approved.
A FINANCIAL LITERACY AND ENTREPRENEUR FOCUS
Schwartz presented the petition to the KHSD board in March and outlined how the school, located in central Bakersfield, would operate.
Along with Common Core courses, such as social studies, math, science and English, the curriculum would include an entrepreneur class that would teach students how to run a business. Throughout the four years, the course would focus on a number of business-related topics, such as budgeting, debt management, loans, retirement accounts and more.
“One of the major things they talk about in education is you want to get a good education so you can get a good job,” Schwartz said during an interview. “But nowhere along the lines is it taught to be the boss or run a business, and that is another set of skills that aren’t taught.”
The course would require students to create an individual student business, which will self-fund the program or provide business cash flow, the petition says. The students’ businesses that are self-funded would be nonprofits that are tied to the school nonprofit.
Schwartz, a former teacher, said these businesses could be as varied as the students’ imaginations. Lunch restaurants, escape rooms, and vending machines could all be businesses.
“It’s not Virtual Business,” she said. “That’s a Shark Tank type thing. That’s not what we are doing.”
Throughout the four years, students would develop the business and earn money. The money would go back into the school program, or students would be able to place funds in a bank account at Pacific Western Bank.
Students would have to go through the proper process of starting a business, such as creating a business plan, applying for Employer Identification Number and a seller’s permit, and obtaining a business license.
Once students determine their trade, they can work with mentors to develop their programs. The skills students learn in the class would carry over into other courses, Schwartz said.
“The business carries over into other courses — such as language arts,” she said. “(Students) can write an essay to put on their blog or website.”
All courses offered would be college prep, and students would have the proper units to transfer to a university, according to Schwartz.
If approved, the school would accept 100 freshmen and 100 sophomores. After the first three years, the school would have 400 students.
The mission of the school is to produce “well-rounded, self-confident, business minded, community conscious, high achieving graduates” who can transition into higher levels of education, business community involvement and are contributing citizens, the petition states.
COMMUNITY CONCERNS OF CHARTER SCHOOL
Community members, however, raised concerns about the charter school at a KHSD board meeting Monday.
Rachel Harless, a teacher in the Kern High School District and business owner, is concerned about personal liability.
“I have liability and lawsuit concerns because children don’t always make the most mature decisions,” she said.
Minors are legally allowed to enter into contracts, just as they would at the Entrepreneur High, but they are also allowed to “disaffirm” them, she said.
“How valid will these contracts be with these kids, and how many adults will want to assume the risk to work with them,” Harless asked.
Jesse Aguilar, who sits on the California Teachers Association Board of Directors, said the school seems “risky.”
“The profit goes back into school and that’s vague,” he said. “But (the petition) doesn’t say what happens with the losses.”
Aguilar said it’s also risky to have no oversight on a non-elected school board that uses tax dollars.
“I urge you to deny this petition and keep public money transparent,” he said.
“I will certainly make sure we will address every one of those concerns,” she said. “My personal mission has been to empower people to create and live their ideal life, and that is exactly what this school will be all about.”
A majority of the Entrepreneur High School board members attended Monday’s meeting and spoke in support of the school.
Schwartz hand-picked her 12 board members and appointed them herself after conducting interviews. Charters do not require publicly-elected boards the way traditional public school districts do. Schwartz said she was looking for members with a blend of skills, including finance, administration, performing arts and more.
“I found a tremendous amount of enthusiasm within the business community,” she said.
Schwartz wants a school that focuses on business because when she started her own business in 1986, she knew nothing, she said.
“I didn’t know I didn’t know,” she said. “Most businesses that fail isn’t because they don’t have a great product. It’s because they don’t know how to run a business.”
BOARD MEMBERS TO DECIDE ON PETITION
After hearing public comments at Monday’s board meeting, Schwartz said she couldn’t be sure whether the district would approve her charter.
“I’m totally up in the air,” she said. “KHSD is not a charter-friendly district.”
The district also already has a charter school — Workforce Academy 2000 — which prepares students for a learning-centered, technologically literate future, the Kern High website says.
“I’m still reviewing (the petition) at this point,” said trustee Flores. “I have to keep an open mind before it comes to the board.”
Flores added that while it’s great to teach students about financial literacy, the district currently offers a robust selection of business courses, such as bookkeeping and accounting, and small business and finance.
“Of course it’s a worthy topic, but it is a pretty narrow focus,” Flores said.
KHSD board president Bryan Batey said the district already offers many courses for business-minded students, such as Virtual Business, FFA programs and economics courses.
“I respect the hard work completed to date by the applicants, and I am confident that their hearts are in the right place,” Batey said. “It is obvious that they share the board of trustees’ desire to serve the youth of Kern County.”
The KHSD board of trustees is scheduled to vote on the petition May 6.