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Orange Board's Charter Schools Idea Contested


ORANGE — Disgusted with public school regulations and eager to advance their own educational philosophies, Orange Unified School District trustees are considering a proposal that would free some of its schools from state control by establishing a multi-campus charter school.

The charter would allow participating schools to create their own educational programs with state funds, but be exempt from state education regulations. Under a 1992 state law, charter schools are free to develop their own curricula, manage their own finances and even hire non-credentialed teachers if they choose.

The proposal, which was presented to board members last month in a task force report, already has enraged members of the district's teachers union, who now are locked in a bitter contract dispute with the district. Teachers and some community activists question whether school board members are pursuing the charter as a way to weaken the teachers union, privatize school services and advance their own conservative--and sometimes radical--agendas.

The charter proposal also is likely to ignite yet another controversy in a school district that has long been plagued with scandal and chaos.

"There is no question that it is basically union busting," said Sheryl Stevens, executive director of the Orange Unified Education Assn. "One step they are [forgetting] is that [charters] require a vote by the staff. . . . To think for a minute that the teachers would vote to be released from the protection of the union and the Education Code is laughable."

After analyzing the task force's report, Supt. Robert L. French said he will recommend at the July 20 school board meeting that the district draft a petition for a multiple-site charter.

French's vision is to have two systems operating within the district. One would consist of schools following the state Education Code; the other would include schools operating under the charter.

"I think the advantage of having multiple sites is that there would be a continuity in program from kindergarten through 12th grade," he said. "I see it as a way of encouraging the staff and the community to look at different ways of providing education and catering it to individual needs of students."

Despite his enthusiasm, French knows the proposal is bound to be controversial.

Before a charter proposal can be approved, it must receive the approval of 50% of the teachers at the participating sites or 10% of the total teaching staff.

"I think there will be a lot of discussion about this," French said. "I plan to start talking with principals in August about the advantages of the proposal, and I will encourage them to work with their staffs and communities."

A majority of board members last week said they also are in favor of pursuing the plan--some even envisioned having most of the district's 36 schools eventually involved under the multi-site charter.

Board President Maureen Aschoff said she believes the charter plan would help implement the Republican philosophy regarding education reform: less government and more control at the campus level.

"Public education belongs to the public, and the public in general has lost confidence in government programming," she said. "It's a lack of confidence in our government, and they want to see a change."

There are now 87 charter schools in California, with two additional schools expecting to receive final approval later this week. State law allows up to 100 schools to receive a charter, and no more than 10 from each school district.

Santiago Middle School in Orange is the only charter school in Orange County.

Although there are now charters offering alternative education at various sites in California, there is no charter program that unites regular school campuses under a single plan, said David Patterson, an educational consultant with the state Department of Education.

In addition to the Orange school district, schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District also are considering establishing a multiple-campus charter.

"When someone says they're going to combine regular school campuses together, it kind of takes your breath away because it seems very dramatic," Patterson said. But because the charter school law doesn't specifically define what a "school" is, a multiple-site charter is legal, he said.

The Orange school district's charter report was written by a subcommittee of the district's Fiscal Advisory Committee, a group made up of parents and community activists. The idea to establish a multiple-campus charter school is in itself a departure from traditional educational practices, but it's likely to stir even more controversy because of the district's beleaguered past.

Within the past few years, teachers and others have gone on strike and three top administrators have been accused of sexual harassment. Eight superintendents have come and gone since 1989. District officials also have been accused of bid-rigging, and five previous trustees were targeted for recall.

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