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
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
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
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
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.