Controversial charter bill could face prolonged fight in Legislature

April 24, 2017

Kindergarten students at Aspire Inskeep Academy in South Los Angeles gather in groups during a reading lesson.

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Californians on both sides of the charter school debate can expect two years of hearings over Senate Bill 808, a bill that would restrict the charter school approval process, which critics claim could lead to the shuttering of many of the schools.

During a press conference Monday at the Capitol, the bill’s author, Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, outlined a two-year roadmap for the proposed law’s passage that includes an eventual vote on the bill.

“Yes, this bill will be going through the process like any other bill, and eventually it’ll be having a vote,” Mendoza said. That process includes a hearing in the Senate Education Committee this week and meetings in communities throughout the state this year.

Mendoza added that Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, chair of that committee, “has indicated that he would like to study the bill a bit further.”

The announcement provides details for Mendoza’s plan for the legislation that were missing last week when he tabled the bill after heavy opposition from charter advocates.

Pro-charter officials say SB 808 could devastate the charter sector in California. The bill would change current law on how charter districts receive their permission to exist. If passed, the law would allow only the local school district to approve a new charter petition and greatly limit the appeals process for charters that districts turn down. Presently, charter schools can appeal a district’s rejection to the county office of education and the State Board of Education.

Charter supporters are also skeptical of the bill’s chances of making its way through the Legislature.

“Certainly a number of moderate Democrats, in particular, have been elected who charter advocates hope will be charter-friendly, but we haven’t had a lot of opportunity to test that yet,” said Eric Premack, a longtime charter school analyst and the executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center. “This may be a first-test case.”

“But even a less friendly Legislature did not look favorably upon these bills in the past,” Premack said. “I would expect that Mendoza would have an even tougher time now.”

Other details about the bill are in flux; the posted version of the proposed law underwent some changes yesterday. For example, the bill no longer has language indicating a district can turn down a charter based on the financial hardship it may impose on the district. Also out is a provision allowing charters to seek judicial review if their petitions are turned down.

Charters are public schools that are operated independently. Most are approved by school districts.

Both Mendoza and the California Teachers Association, which backs SB 808, argue that too often local school districts’ rulings are overturned by the State Board of Education. A 2016 analysis by the California Teachers Association – the state’s largest teachers union – found that since 2002 the state board has approved 45 of the 61 appeals of charter schools that were rejected by the district or county.

“The local school boards are elected. The county boards are not elected. And state offices are not elected. So there’s a subversion of democracy,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He said the powerful teachers union in Los Angeles will have hearings about SB 808 down the line.

The California Charter Schools Association, which has fought heavily against the bill, has called it a “charter killer” and one “that would obliterate the charter school movement.”

Steven Baratte, a spokesman for the charter schools group, said that the appeals process is important because districts may have an inherent bias against charter school growth. “The county and state boards may be a more reasonable body to evaluate a charter because they do not have the self-interest that a district does to deny a charter that may be perceived as competing with them for students and [associated] dollars,” he wrote in an email.

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