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California and the West

Legislators May Offer Charter School Deal

Education: Agreement to make creation easier would head off initiative. Wilson says measure doesn't go far enough.


SACRAMENTO — Hoping to derail a charter schools initiative headed for the November ballot, lawmakers Thursday proposed legislation that would make it easier to create such public schools.

If a deal is struck, it will be a testament to the leverage that initiative proponents wield in the Capitol. Until the initiative was proposed and funded, powerful public-school lobbying groups had blocked efforts to expand the number of charter schools. A 1993 law allowed their creation in California.

Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos), leading the effort to strike a compromise, vowed to continue meetings through the weekend in an effort to resolve differences. "This is very doable," Lempert said.

Lempert's proposed legislation, unveiled at a hearing Thursday, incorporates several aspects of the initiative, including an increase in the number of charter schools that can be created each year and provisions for nonprofit corporations to create the schools and receive tax money to operate them.

"We would prefer a legislative solution," said charter schools advocate Don Shalvey, superintendent of schools in the San Francisco suburb of San Carlos and one of the proponents of the initiative.

The measure also is being pushed by Reed Hastings, a onetime teacher who became wealthy by founding a software company. Hastings and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs face the prospect of spending $15 million in the November election if they move ahead with the initiative and teachers unions mount a serious campaign against it.

A legislative deal is far from certain, however.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who has endorsed the initiative, believes that the legislation doesn't go far enough, his aides said Thursday. Wilson's refusal to sign a bill would scuttle any deal among legislators, public-school lobbyists and proponents of the charter schools initiative.

Among the unresolved issues is how many new charter schools could be created. The initiative would place no cap on the number of such schools, a position Wilson supports. As part of a compromise, Gene Erbin, lobbyist for the initiative's backers, said they would agree to a cap of 200 new schools annually.

However, the influential California Teachers Assn. wants no more than 35 new charter schools a year, unless the teachers union can win separate legislation guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for teachers at charter schools--a concession Wilson appears unwilling to make.

"Teachers have a lot to lose . . . in moving to charter schools," Sharon Scott Dow, lobbyist for the teachers union, said at Thursday's hearing.

Glee Johnson, a top education advisor to Wilson, called the governor's insistence on having an unlimited number of new charter schools "very serious." In her testimony, Johnson also said Wilson believes that a provision making it especially easy for low-performing public schools to become charter schools is "absolutely key."

Lawmakers face a deadline of next Friday. Unless the bill is signed by then, Erbin said, initiative proponents plan to submit roughly 1.2 million signatures to county elections officials.

If there are enough valid signatures of registered voters, the initiative would qualify for the November ballot.

"We need a signed bill, or Pete Wilson calling Reed Hastings and saying, 'I will sign this,' " Erbin said.

California already has 130 charter schools, but advocates say state law unnecessarily restricts the number of new schools that can be formed. Charter school proponents say the schools can help improve education by giving teachers and parents more control over how children are taught.

Although charter schools' curriculum is similar to that in other public schools, they generally operate independently of local school districts.

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