Spark Charter School Tragedy caused by lax County Office of Education oversight

Parents and the media seemed surprised when Spark Charter School in Sunnyvale was forced to temporarily close down after one of its students was molested by staff person Jonathan Chow.  The school had failed to keep the required background checks or TB tests for the majority of its employees.  Sadly, the County Office of Education failed in it’s fiduciary responsibility to hold charters accountable, and this preventable tragedy should send a huge wake up call.  The parents of the student are filing suit against both Spark Academy and the County Office of Education.

The County board of education ignored the warning signs of this impending tragedy.

The Sunnyvale Unified School District Board, denied the charter, citing a number of serious problems.  When the Santa Clara County School Board approved the charter on a 4 – 3 vote, several of the Board members echoed those concerns.

Members of the County School Board questioned the validity of numerous aspects of the Spark petition including the financial analysis presented, the Special Education program, the English Learner program, and the testing of low-achieving students. When County School Board Members asked former Chief Strategy Officer Toni Cordova for her assessment, she stated that she did not believe the Spark Board of Directors or the school administrators had “the depth of experience in education or charter schools” necessary to “launch an education program.” In voting against approval, both Trustee Chang and Green expressed disappointment that a six-year effort had produced a petition they could not approve.  Trustee Song, who also voted against the petition, was more pointed when she directly asked parent leaders what would happen if the school was approved and then failed.  The Spark parents dismissed her questions insisting that they had the expertise to open and maintain a school despite the petition’s flaws.

The four trustees who voted to approve Spark Charter also had their concerns. Trustee Mah asked that the school be given a time-line to verify that the conditions stated in the petition were met.  Trustee Beauchman insisted that there be an “educational leader” to guide the school since an Executive Director had yet to be hired.  Trustee Di Salvo worried that he “might be setting a school and the kids up for failure,” but concurred with former Trustee Hoover-Smoot’s vote for parent choice.

After the charter school was approved, the parents, staff and board members recruited students from across the county, telling parents that the Santa Clara County Board of Education had approved them as a charter school. This recruitment however, did not include the fact that it was a 4 – 3 vote against strong staff recommendations to deny the petition or that former Trustee Beauchman said he would approve Spark Charter because if it failed, it would “not be overly traumatic for the kids,” but rather an experience similar to changing schools.

While Spark Charter School did promote Hoover-Smoot’s idea that “parent choice in education is the next civil rights issue,” granting that “parent choice” actually left the students vulnerable.  When recruiting, Spark failed to tell parents that, because they were a charter, there was no government agency or elected body that could ensure the safety, care, and education of their children or assure that federal, state, or city regulations were followed at the school.  Parents were not told that financial oversight for tax dollars meant to educate students was based on whatever documents the school wished to provide.  Parents were not told that emergency teacher credentials could be obtained by any college graduate who may or may not have any training in education.  Finally, parents were not told that it would take the arrest of an employee for the Santa Clara County Office of Education to take oversight of its approved charter schools seriously.

Superintendent Gundry assured reporters that the County office would “look at our processes to see if there is something we can do to make sure this does not happen again.” The public needs to know that the Santa Clara County School Board will not approve charter schools that are likely to fail and that they will hold their approved charter schools to the level of accountability of all public schools – not just at a renewal hearing or an annual report – but on each and every day that children attend school.