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Wilson Expected to OK Bill on Charter Schools

Legislature: Measure would expand use of format and avert initiative battle. Conference committee approves changes.

April 29, 1998|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Averting an initiative fight over charter schools, Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to sign legislation making it far easier for parents and teachers to open such public schools, administration officials and others said Tuesday.

Lawmakers are set to vote Thursday on legislation fashioned by Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos) that expands the use of charter public schools.

Wilson's aides, along with public school lobbyists and the initiative's backers, were involved last week in negotiations over AB 544.

"We are almost to the point of supporting the bill," a top Wilson administration official said Tuesday. "We are waiting to consult with other individuals who had concerns about elements of the bill. But we're almost there."

After receiving commitments from the Wilson administration that the governor probably will sign the bill, backers of the initiative said they will drop their proposed ballot measure.

Reed Hastings, founder of a Silicon Valley software company and one of the main backers of the initiative, had planned to turn in more than a million signatures of registered voters Friday to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

"I assume the legislation will pass and it will be signed," Hastings said.

Hastings appeared at a legislative hearing Monday night and requested several last-minute changes to Lempert's legislation, which were accepted by a Senate-Assembly conference committee. The committee voted 5-0 to support the bill, a final step before the Legislature votes on it Thursday.

The measure is supported by Republican lawmakers, who long have championed the expansion of charter schools, and several key Democrats.

In the past, Democrats have sided with public school lobbyists who opposed efforts to expand charter schools, fearing that teachers and other union members might lose collective bargaining rights.

Adding to the likelihood that the measure will pass, John Hein of the California Teachers Assn. said his organization is supporting it. That is especially significant, given the union's sway with lawmakers.

"The initiative was dramatically flawed," Hein said Tuesday. "This is a positive step forward for [charter schools]. We believe we actually improved the charter school statute."

Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange), a conference committee member who voted in favor of the measure Monday, called the bill a "meaningful compromise."

"You can get a better product when the Legislature gets involved and hammers out a compromise, and that's certainly what happened here," Lempert said.

Advocates of charter public schools contend that the schools can help improve education by giving teachers and parents more control over what is taught. Charter schools operate independently from state and local education administrators.

Lempert's bill does not go as far as the proposed initiative, but it would significantly expand the law. The law now limits the number of charter schools statewide to 100, although state education officials have granted waivers allowing 130 to open since 1993, when charter schools began in California.

The initiative would place no cap on the number of new charter schools that could be created. The legislation would permit 100 new charter schools to be opened annually.

Additionally, the law now grants much authority to local school boards to deny parents and teachers permission to open new charter schools. The legislation would restrict the ability of school boards to deny charter schools, and would require school districts to provide free school space if it is available.

The question of whether teachers will have full union rights will be left up to individual charter schools. California Teachers Assn. lobbyists intend to push for legislation specifically granting collective bargaining rights at charter schools.

The legislation, like the initiative, would allow private nonprofit corporations to open charter public schools and receive tax money for their operation.

The measure requires that teachers in the schools have teaching credentials. Some charter school advocates want more flexibility so that experts could teach in charter schools, whether or not they have teaching credentials.

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