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California and the West

Judge Blocks Expansion of Charter Schools

Education: Order is issued in suit charging that program violates state Constitution. Hearing is set for Aug. 14.

July 10, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A San Francisco judge has issued an order that may bar the State Board of Education from taking any steps to create more charter schools, state officials said Thursday.

Superior Court Judge Raymond D. Williamson Jr. issued the order on July 1 that apparently forbids the state to create more of the quasi-independent public schools, but officials made no public mention of it until a state board meeting Thursday.

The announcement of the judge's decision caught the Wilson administration and other charter school supporters off guard. The order is in effect until Aug. 14, when Williamson will hold a hearing on whether to make the ban permanent.

The judge's ruling came after two taxpayers in San Francisco and Marin County filed suit charging that charter schools violate the state Constitution as a gift of public funds to private organizations and on other grounds, state officials said.

As a consequence of the order, the state board did not act Thursday on about half a dozen applications for charter schools, said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director. The applications had been expected to receive routine approval.

The state has a new charter school law, allowing more rapid expansion of charter schools, that takes effect Jan. 1. The judge's order would block action by the state board to create charter schools under either existing law or the new law.

Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, said the ruling, if it stands, "could potentially invalidate the law the governor just signed." He added that it could have "a very significant potential impact on the movement to reform education through the charter school process."

Charter schools, touted as a competitive alternative to the traditional public school system, are supported by public funds but are free from most state and local regulations.

Typically, they are governed by committees of school administrators, teachers and parents.

Supporters of charter schools have many different motivations. One idea suggested in recent weeks, for example, has been to preserve some bilingual education programs that would be banned by the passage of Proposition 227 by creating bilingual charter schools.

Critics say that charter schools drain resources from other schools in an already underfunded system, while having little accountability for results.

The new charter school law (AB 544), signed into law in May, marked a watershed in state politics. After it was enacted, charter school backers led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings withdrew a reform initiative they had threatened to place on the November ballot.

California now authorizes about 130 charter schools, a fraction of the 8,000 public schools statewide. The new law allowed up to 250 charter schools in the next school year and the addition of 100 more annually in following years.

Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos), who wrote the new law, said: "It would be a tragedy if that ruling stayed in effect for any length [of time]. There was a broad bipartisan consensus that we need to expand the charter school program. To try to stifle that movement . . . would be a real travesty."

The judge's order was apparently restricted to the state board, state officials said.

But the board plays a broad role in the expansion of charter schools under both current law and the new law. In recent years, it has been the key agency responsible for authorizing new charter schools. Under the new law, it is supposed to take on additional powers to adopt regulations and oversee such schools, Lucia said.

Attorneys for the two plaintiffs, Richard Wilson and Fernando Ulloa, could not be reached for comment.

The school districts whose applications for charter schools were put on hold Thursday at the state board, Lucia said, included Fremont Unified, Fresno Unified and a handful of others in San Luis Obispo, San Diego and Los Angeles counties and elsewhere.

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