Calif. Reaches 'Historic' Charter School Agreement

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Facing growing support for a charter school ballot initiative, the California legislature late last week easily passed a bill that would make the state's charter school law one of the most liberal in the nation.

The measure was immediately embraced by supporters of the citizen initiative, who have pledged to burn the petitions that have picked up 1.2 million signatures as soon as Gov. Pete Wilson signs the legislation.

And that won't be long, according to the Republican governor, who last Thursday immediately went on record in support of the bill, which represented a compromise by lawmakers, initiative proponents, and teachers' unions.

"It shows what good legislators and people outside the legislature are able to do when they get serious about it," said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of the education committee in the legislature's lower house. "But the pressure helped."

The measure passed the Assembly on a 60-4 vote April 30 before cruising through the Senate, 29-3, later that day. It would significantly amend the current state law governing charter schools, which are publicly funded schools designed to operate with a minimum of regulation.

For starters, the current cap of 100 such schools would be lifted from 100 to 250 for the 1998-99 school year, and 100 additional charter schools could be added each school year after that. Today, because of waivers issued by the state board of education, there are already 133 charter schools in California.

"I would have preferred that there be no cap, actually," Mr. Wilson told reporters at a press briefing. "But a hundred [schools] a year can add substantially to the total number nationwide."

There are currently almost 7,700 charter schools across the country, according to the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group in Washington.

More Flexibility

In addition, the new measure would allow the state and county boards of education to grant charters after they have been denied by local school boards. Current policy allows for appeals to county boards only.

Charter school proponents also secured new provisions to allow nonprofit groups to run charter schools and to require school boards to make empty facilities available to charter school operators.

"This is historic," said Reed Hastings, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-director of the charter school ballot measure. "This is not some lightweight version of charters, but a very strong law."

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, agreed. She said the California bill is second only to Arizona's expansive charter law in favoring charter schools.

"In terms of number and ability to get off of the ground, this will really open up the field for charter schools," she said. "This is the bright light on the horizon for charter schools in 1998."

The California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, also won concessions during the negotiations. Nationally, the NEA's commitment to charter schools has been questioned by some proponents of such schools. ("In Midst of Skepticism and Scrutiny, NEA's 5 Charter Schools Push On," March 11, 1998.)

But the California union signed on after gaining amendments that would require charter schools to hire credentialed teachers and strengthen financial oversight of the schools.

"The one thing we would like in there is collective bargaining for charter teachers, and that's not in there," said CTA spokeswoman Tommye Hutto. But the battle for those amendments will be fought later, she added. "We're not giving up on that."

Just about everyone involved said that the pressure brought to bear on the legislature and other interested parties by the initiative drive was key to forging the compromise.

"It provided the leverage for a forum," said Don Shalvey, a co-director of the measure, which had already cost its organizers $3 million. Mr. Shalvey is the superintendent of the 2,400-student San Carlos Elementary School District near San Francisco.

The compromise also helped everyone avoid a costly and potentially ugly campaign over the ballot measure in the fall.

As Ms. Hutto put it, "We'd rather put our money into helping children and teachers."

And rather than exchanging verbal barbs and sound bites about why the other group is wrong, the parties walked away from the negotiations praising each another.

"The [union officials] probably saw us as some voucher kooks in sheep's clothing, but we really got to like one another," Mr. Hastings said.

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This story incorrectly reported the number of charter schools operating nationwide. According to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, there are 786 such schools.

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