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Calif. Initiative Would Open Way for Many New Charter Schools

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A California coalition founded by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a venture capitalist, and a schools superintendent is gearing up to put a ballot initiative before state voters in the fall that could dramatically expand the number of charter schools in the state.

The group, Californians for Public School Excellence, was expected to launch its campaign this week. Backers have already started gathering the 693,230 signatures required for the measure to go before voters in November. Supporters have until mid-April to collect the needed voter signatures.

The initiative founders say their proposal seeks to create the necessary legal and financial framework to support the growth of more than 2,000 charter schools. California has 125 of the nearly 800 charter schools in operation nationwide, and in 1992 was part of the first wave of states to pass laws allowing the largely independent public schools.

While the current legislature is supportive of charter schools, the initiative's organizers say, it is unlikely that lawmakers will make major changes in the charter school program any time soon. Initiative sponsors include Reed Hastings, a software entrepreneur and a former teacher; Floyd Kvamme, a venture capitalist; and Don Shalvey, the superintendent of the 2,500-student K-8 San Carlos district south of San Francisco. San Carlos was the first California district to approve a charter school.

The initiative is intended to strengthen the public school system, Mr. Shalvey said last week. To allow charter schools to grow further, he added, they must secure the public's trust. "If charters are to be a mainstream public school option, you have to ensure greater accountability for more flexibility," the 53-year-old schools chief said.

Opinion Divided

Some charter proponents, however, fear the initiative would result in more regulation of charters in exchange for growth of the movement in California.

The California Network of Educational Charters, a nonprofit group that represents many charter school founders and operators, has not yet taken a position on the initiative, said its director, Susan Steelman Bragato. Ms. Bragato is also a co-founder of the state's first charter school, San Carlos Charter Learning Center, in Mr. Shalvey's district.

While the group's legislative agenda parallels some of the initiative's chief points, in some areas the proposed ballot measure goes too far and in others, not far enough, Ms. Bragato said. For example, she said, provisions in the initiative that would require charters to perform above many other public schools might discourage people from opening charter schools that serve at-risk children.

Supporters of the initiative say they expect it to draw the ire of the state's teachers' unions, but they believe it will gain support from a broad range of individuals and groups. "Bipartisan support and bipartisan worry is what we're expecting," Mr. Shalvey said.

Among the initiative's chief elements are proposals that would:

  • Abolish the current cap of 100 charter schools, making permanent the state school board's practice of granting waivers to individual charter school petitions.
  • Eliminate a requirement in the current law that calls for a percentage of teachers in a given school or district to approve the creation of charter schools within that district, a rule many charter supporters say has stymied growth.
  • Allow multiple sponsors of charter schools, not just local school boards.
  • Require charter schools to show student achievement superior to that of "comparable" public schools or risk being shut down.
  • Permit a majority of parents at the state's consistently lowest-performing schools to request that the school be operated by an existing charter school.
  • Amend the state constitution to clarify that charter schools may operate as nonprofit corporations.

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Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Visit the U.S. Charter Schools Web site for background and statistics on the charter school movement in the U.S.
  • Read "Charter Schools in Action: What Have We Learned?" This 1996 report from the Hudson Institute includes a survey of 35 schools and information from site visits to 43 schools in seven states.
  • Read "Charter School Laws: Do They Measure Up?" a 1996 report from the American Federation of Teachers that endorses charter schools as a useful vehicle for school reform, provided that they can demonstrate improved student achievement.
  • Read Charter Schools in Action: A First Look, by Chester E. Finn Jr., Louann A. Bierlein, and Bruno V. Manno, January 1996. The Hudson Institute launched the Charter Schools in Action project in the summer of 1995, to study problems in starting a charter school and solutions to such problems.
  • The charter school research Web site, hosted by AskERIC, provides a comprehensive catalog of charter school-related materials on the Net.
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