Advocates Seek To Broaden Calif. Charter Schools Law
It could take another year before California lawmakers are ready to raise the cap on charter schools or pass other measures that would liberalize the state's charter school program, a top legislator said last week.
Nonetheless, charter school supporters are mustering a full-scale legislative effort to broaden the state's 4-year-old experiment with the publicly funded schools that are free from most state rules and regulations.
"On a grassroots level, we're gaining momentum," said state Sen. John R. Lewis, a Republican who is sponsoring four charter school bills. "We have waiting lists for virtually every charter school in the state."
Twenty-six states now have laws that give charters to schools so that they can operate with minimal regulatory oversight. Of the nearly 500 charter schools nationwide, 108 are in California.
One of Mr. Lewis' bills would extend the period for renewing charters from five years to 15 years. The bill was slated to go before the Senate education committee late last week.
Supporters of the bill say that charter school operators have a hard time securing outside funding for start-up costs under the five-year charters. The result, they say, is higher payments for financing.
But opponents say the bill is premature.
"We think that five years is plenty," said Tommye Hutto, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. "None of these schools have reached five years yet, and they haven't been evaluated."
Another of Mr. Lewis' bills, as well as one pending in the Assembly, would remove the statutory cap that sets the maximum number of charter schools in California at 100. The cap is slowing expansion, according to charter school proponents.
But Ms. Hutto said the teachers' union opposes an end to the cap, in part because the state school board is already approving charters above that limit on a case-by-case basis.
Mr. Lewis' package, which was introduced at the request of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, includes a bill that would give the state's four-year university and college systems the authority to approve five charter schools per system.
That bill is strongly opposed by the California School Boards Association, which argues that the ultimate responsibility for university-chartered schools that fail would fall back on local school boards.
Senate hearings on the bills were moved from last week to April 10 and 11 to coincide with a charter school conference in Sacramento.
Even if the charter school bills make it out of the Senate, the powerful new Democratic chairwoman of the Assembly's education committee is not yet ready to back the bills.
Rep. Kerry Mazzoni, who is in her first term as the panel's chairwoman, said she wants to wait until the Legislative Analyst's Office completes its evaluation of charter schools next fall. The office provides nonpartisan policy advice to state lawmakers.
"It's not time to move forward on charter schools," Rep. Mazzoni said last week.
"There are some things that we can do to fine-tune charter schools, but without an evaluation, we will not be able to support charter schools to opponents," argued the chairwoman, who is a longtime supporter of such schools.
Several charter school bills introduced in the Assembly have yet to receive hearing dates before her committee.
But there is at least one bill that Ms. Mazzoni said she could get to the desk of Gov. Wilson. It would require charter school buildings to meet the state's seismic-safety standards, which are outlined in a law called the Field Act.
Passage of the bill could force many charter schools to make extensive renovations to their facilities. Others would likely shut down, say opponents of the bill, which the Senate education committee passed early this month by a 7-3 vote.
"I'm not sure how we'll handle it," Ms. Mazzoni said, "but if any of these pass, that would be it."
There is no total estimate of how much it would cost for charter schools to comply with the safety law. But charter school operators say they would be hard-pressed to find the money to make the improvements needed to meet the earthquake safeguards.