Los Angeles Times

Friday, July 10, 1998

Judge's Decision Could Block Charter Schools
Education: Proposed court order throws officials into confusion. It follows suit charging that the program violates state Constitution.
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Education Writer

Expansion of the state's charter school system was thrown into doubt Thursday as a proposed court order came to light that would bar the state Board of Education from taking steps to create more of the quasi-independent public schools.
      State officials initially interpreted the decision by Judge Raymond D. Williamson Jr. of San Francisco Superior Court as a restraining order that would take effect immediately. Indeed, at a state board meeting Thursday, a half-dozen charter school applications were put on hold on the advice of state attorneys.
      But by Thursday evening, officials were saying instead that the judge had simply set an Aug. 14 court date in a case that could slow the movement to expand charter schools.
      "We had some confusion," said Michael Hersher, general counsel for the Department of Education.
      The judge's proposed order forbidding the state board from taking any action to create more charter schools was issued on July 1, but officials made no public mention of it until the state board meeting Thursday.
      The announcement of the judge's decision caught the Wilson administration and other charter school supporters off guard. The judge's proposed order, known as an alternative writ of mandamus, will be discussed at the Aug. 14 hearing.
      The judge's ruling came after two taxpayers from San Francisco and Marin County filed suit charging that charter schools violate the state Constitution as a gift of public funds to private organizations and on other grounds.
      As a consequence of the proposed order, the state board did not act Thursday on about half a dozen applications to create or reauthorize charter schools, said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director. The applications had been expected to receive routine approval.
      The state has a new charter school law, allowing more rapid expansion of charter schools, that takes effect Jan. 1. The judge's proposed order would block action by the state board to create charter schools under either existing law or the new law.
      Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, said the order, if it takes effect, "could potentially invalidate the law the governor just signed." He added that it could have "a very significant potential impact on the movement to reform education through the charter school process."
      Charter schools, touted as a competitive alternative to the traditional public school system, are supported by public funds but are free from most state and local regulations.
      Typically, they are governed by committees of school administrators, teachers and parents.
      Supporters of charter schools have many different motivations. One idea suggested in recent weeks, for example, has been to preserve some bilingual education programs that would be banned by the passage of Proposition 227 by creating bilingual charter schools.
      Critics say that charter schools drain resources from other schools in an already underfunded system, while having little accountability for results.
      "It's a profound shift in the concept of public schools," said Lynn S. Carman, an attorney for plaintiffs Richard Wilson and Fernando Ulloa. "It taxes you and me for public purposes and then turns it over to private people to do with as they want."
      Carman, who is based in Mill Valley, said the plaintiffs do not represent any special interest groups. "They're just citizens and taxpayers. Ordinary people," he said. Ulloa, he said, has two children in public schools.
      The new charter school law (AB 544), signed into law in May, marked a watershed in state politics. After it was enacted, charter school backers led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings withdrew a reform initiative they had threatened to place on the November ballot.
      California now authorizes more than 130 charter schools, a fraction of the 8,000 public schools statewide. The new law allowed up to 250 charter schools in the next school year and the addition of 100 more annually in following years.       State Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-Palo Alto), who wrote the new law, said it "would be a tragedy" if the ruling took effect. He added: "There was a broad bipartisan consensus that we need to expand the charter school program."
      Among the school districts whose charter school applications were put on hold Thursday at the state board meeting were Fremont Unified in Alameda County, Fresno Unified, Gorman School District in Los Angeles County, Paso Robles Joint Unified in San Luis Obispo County, Twin Ridges Elementary in Nevada County and Grossmont Union High School in San Diego County.