California bill that would restrict charter school approvals stalls in Sacramento

April 17, 2017

A teacher at USC Hybrid High College Prep, a charter school in downtown Los Angeles,

Charter school supporters are applauding a state senator’s decision to table a bill that would have allowed only school districts to approve new charter petitions.

The bill’s author, State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, said Monday he will not ask the Senate Education Committee to vote on the bill next week when it was due to come up for consideration.

Mendoza said he remains behind the concept of the bill, which would greatly restrict how charters appeal district-level refusals to their county offices of education and remove the state Board of Education from the process altogether.

Mendoza made his decision following a rally and meeting with charter supporters at his Los Angeles-area office this past week.

“I’ve taken the concerns expressed about this bill and its impact on existing charters, and I am working to address them,” Mendoza told EdSource. “However, due to timing, I may present the bill in the Senate Education committee and not ask for a vote. This will allow us more time to find the best way to address the serious issues of charter school authorizations and petitioners.”

The setback for the bill reflects the growing clout of the California Charter School Association as it moves aggressively to expand charter school enrollments in the state. The association has called on its members to rally against the bill, including asking supporters to rally at Mendoza’s district office on April 13.

The bill was backed by the California Teachers Association, which argued that allowing school districts to approve charter schools was consistent with the “local control” approach espoused by Gov. Jerry Brown and adopted by the state Legislature.

“SB 808 is not dead,” said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. “There is a lot of important testimony that needs to be shared and myriad facts presented, therefore more time is needed to show the drastic and negative impacts the lack of regulations on corporate charter schools is having on our students and communities.”

The union wrote on its website that the ability of county offices of education to overrule some district decisions on charters “is undermining the practice of local control, wherein districts develop priorities and plans with input from all stakeholders including parents, students, teachers and community members.”

But charter supporters claimed that the bill threatened their survival.

To open a charter school, organizers can submit petitions to school districts for authorization, and in some cases to county offices of education or the State Board of Education. If their application is denied by the district, they can appeal to their county office of education and the State Board of Education.

At a conference for charter supporters last month, the California charter association argued that county offices of education “can be more objective and have rigorous petition evaluation” processes.

Mendoza introduced his bill only two months ago, but it has stoked vehement opposition from charter school advocates. The bill was slated to be heard by its first legislative committee next week, the Senate Education Committee.

The bill was called “draconian” by Carlos Marquez, senior vice president, Government Affairs, of the California Charter School Association, the state’s leading charter advocacy organization.

Many charters would likely close if the bill were to pass, said Marquez, because districts under Senate Bill 808 would be empowered to deny the renewals of existing charter schools. Under California law, charter schools must renew their petition every five years.

Mendoza’s bill would have allowed a district to claim a financial hardship as a reason for denying a charter, a potentially explosive justification as many districts fault charter schools for siphoning off students. School finance is tied to student enrollment.

It would also significantly limit the appeals process when a charter school’s petition to open is rejected. Current law allows charter operators to appeal to the county and then the state.

SB 808 would instead allow a county to consider a school district’s rejection of a charter only if the district “committed a procedural violation,” according to the bill’s language. That refers to failure to follow a timeline or other technical rules. Rather than the appeals process moving up to the state, the bill says the appeal would be remanded to the district. The final step in the appeals process would be judicial review.

“We are heartened we’ve made progress with the author and plan to continue to engage with the author and all the stakeholders involved until the bill is pulled or dies,” Marquez said to EdSource in response to Mendoza’s decision not to put the bill up for a vote this week.

The bill is seen by charter advocates as a threat to the sector, one “that would obliterate the charter school movement,” Rand Martin, a lobbyist for the charter schools association told attendees at the organization’s annual meeting in Sacramento in March.

Martin also said the bill would be burdensome to districts, not just charters, because charters could potentially fight a rejection of their petition by suing their districts.

“Senator Mendoza’s primary goal is to ensure students of the 32nd district get the best possible education, and in future legislation will look to find solutions that are acceptable to parents throughout the district and the state,” said Timothy Kirkconnell, Mendoza’s communications director.

Kirkconnell said the bill had “gotten a generally mixed response” from constituents. The charter organization is planning a protest at Tuesday’s meeting of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board, where a board member has proposed a resolution supporting SB 808.

Mendoza was the author of two other charter bills, including one in 2011 when he was an Assembly member. The bill passed the Assembly but failed in the Senate. In 2015, a Senate committee turned down a comparable bill after major revisions.

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