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The State Board of Education approved a charter school for the Mission District last week despite the school’s rejection by the San Francisco Unified School District last spring. In their rejection, district officials cited doubts about Mission Preparatory School’s curriculum, community support and teacher pay. The school’s backers appealed the decision to the state board.

Mission Preparatory School is slated to open in August 2011 with 90 kindergarten students and 60 first-grade students. It will target low-income children, serve grades K-8 and emphasize academic achievement. Charter schools are publicly funded and operate independently of local school boards.

“We are thrilled about the state board’s approval and the opportunity to bring the vision of Mission Prep to life for the families who want this school option available for their children,” said Jane Henzerling, a former public school teacher and Mission Prep’s lead founder.

But some local school activists said the approval is an example of how the state bypasses local and sometimes reluctant school boards. While some characterize this as typical of the bureaucratic process, others call it illogical, given the state board’s distance from local affairs.

“The state board’s knowledge of local conditions in San Francisco is absent, and more so in the Mission,” said Jill Wynns, a San Francisco Board of Education commissioner who voted to deny Mission Prep’s charter.

She called the state board “a wholly-owned subsidiary of the California Charter Schools Association,” the state’s largest charter school advocacy group.

The board, which voted unanimously in Mission Prep’s favor, is filled with charter school advocates appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a charter school crusader. During Schwarzenegger’s tenure, the number of charter schools statewide has more than doubled.

The Obama administration has also spurred the growth of charter schools by making $52 million available for them and requiring states competing for $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds — a race California has lost in the last two competitions — to lift or abolish caps on the number of charter schools they allow.

Six of the state board’s 10 members have explicit ties to charter schools, including its president, Theodore Mitchell, who heads the NewSchools Venture Fund, which has invested over $150 million in charter schools since 2002. Other board members include the principal of a Los Angeles charter school, the founder of a charter school, the president of a university that runs a charter school, the leader of a parent group funded by charter school advocates and a board member of a group that has opened 16 charter schools in Los Angeles.

Since 2008, the board has approved nearly three-quarters — 14 out of 19 — of the charter appeals it has considered, according to the state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Division.

Wynns said the state is indiscriminate when it comes to charter school appeals, and she doesn’t believe the appeal process is fair.

“Fair implies objectivity, and here there is none,” she said.

State board officials declined to comment.

But others said local school boards may not be impartial when it comes to charter schools, either. Local school districts may have a conflict of interest, said Bonnie Galloway, a consultant with the state Department of Education’s Charter Schools Division, because they risk losing funding and motivated students to charter schools. “In a way, they’re making a decision about what could be their competition,” Galloway said.

Wynns cites competition as a reason for her rejection of Mission Prep’s charter, in addition to reservations about the school’s aptitude.

“With all the work the district is doing to work on improvement, this will not be helpful,” she said. “[Mission Prep is] competing for students when we are rallying for support. Do I want administrators to be answering questions from parents if it’s better to send their kid to a charter school? Or do I want them focused on improving our schools?

“This is resource-sapping. If they take students away from our district, we lose resources.”

Charter schools have been competing with public schools since their inception in 1992. By 2008, their ranks had grown to more than 4,000 schools enrolling more than a million students nationwide, according to the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit institution that conducts policy research and analysis.

California has about 900 charter schools, about 100 of which opened in the last year, Galloway said. Two charter schools currently operate in the Mission, the K-8 Edison Charter Academy and the Metropolitan Arts & Technology High School.

“They feel they’re saving inner kids, or they may say, ‘I want to do the right thing for society, even if I can only save X number of kids,’ but they don’t worry about the collateral damage to the public education system,” said Diane Ravitch, an assistant secretary of education under George W. Bush who has become one of the nation’s leading charter school critics.

But charter school advocates — including New York hedge fund managers who have made the schools their pet cause — say that because charters are free of many of the restrictions that inhibit public school systems, they can incubate new ideas that can then be applied to public schools.

“[Mission Prep will] work to influence broader reforms by demonstrating what is possible for students to achieve,” said Henzerling.

But many charter school critics say their successes are due to practices that can’t or won’t be implemented system-wide, such as forcing teachers to work very long hours for low pay, or because charters tend to leave the neediest, least-capable kids to traditional public schools.

The San Francisco school district saw a similar paradigm with Mission Prep. Experts with the Board of Education called the charter’s proposed curriculum “inadequate at best,” Wynns said. The district raised questions about teacher training, the school’s capacity to implement its disciplinary plan and its plan to teach English to English-language learners.

In response, Mission Prep’s board detailed the school’s plans to train teachers and teach English, and also stressed Henzerling’s extensive experience as a bilingual classroom teacher and teacher trainer.

Read the board’s full findings and Mission Prep’s response here.

The board also raised concerns about teacher pay, expressing doubts that the school could attract highly qualified teachers if it stuck to its plan to pay teachers less than the district average. The school district’s projected salary for 180 7-hour days is $61,070. Mission Prep budgeted $58,000 per teacher for 190 8-hour days.

The school district report also said Mission Prep did not demonstrate as much support from parents of school-age children as it would have liked to see, noting that the school’s proposal was signed by 39 parents of kindergarten-age children, only 11 of whom lived in the Mission District.

“It is definitely a group of outsiders coming in and saying, ‘We can solve the educational problems in your community,’” said Wynns.

But Mission Prep’s board includes people who work with the Central American Resource Center in the Mission, the Bi-Rite businesses and the San Francisco Youth Commission. Henzerling also said Mission Prep held well-attended meetings with parents at neighborhood organizations.

Mission Prep has already heard from a number of parents who want to enroll their children, Henzerling said. The enrollment process will be launched next month.

“We’re just focused on the work at hand,” Henzerling said. “We’re grateful for all the community organizations and families that have rallied around Mission Prep and supported the charter authorization.”

School officials will now focus on outreach and student recruitment, securing a location, refining curriculum and securing funds to supplement state-per-pupil allocations, Henzerling said.

Recent research suggests that, taken as a whole, charter schools don’t outperform traditional public schools.

“It turns out to be harder to create a good school than anyone realizes,” said Ravitch. “There are charters that do a bang-up job, and charters that are really awful. But most fall in the middle.”

San Francisco’s charter schools show that variability; see the chart above for a comparison of selected charter and public schools in the city.

A 2010 study by Stanford University found that California’s charter schools performed at about the same level as traditional public schools, though English-language learners in charter schools appeared to do better than those in traditional public schools.