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Legislature OKs Bill Easing Charter School Expansion

Education: Wilson says he will sign the compromise legislation. An initiative on the issue will be dropped.


SACRAMENTO — The Legislature gave overwhelming bipartisan approval Thursday to allowing a major expansion of California's charter school system.

Gov. Pete Wilson said he will sign the legislation authorizing the expansion as early as today.

After six years of stalemated debate and in the face of a proposed November ballot initiative to increase the number of charter schools, state lawmakers acted almost unanimously to permit a near-doubling of the 133 such schools and the addition of up to 100 per year beginning in 1999. Orange County has one charter school, Santiago Middle School in Orange.

Charter schools follow curricula and guidelines largely outside the traditional state and school district system and are set up with the approval of parents and teachers.

The authorizing bill by Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos) passed 29 to 3 in the Senate and 60 to 4 in the Assembly.

Wilson said he would have preferred the ballot initiative, which would have allowed unlimited expansion of charter schools, "but a hundred [schools] a year can add substantially" to the total, "and so I will be pleased to sign" the bill.

Led by Silicon Valley software maker Reed Hastings, the initiative's supporters said they were ready with 1 million signatures to qualify their measure if the Legislature failed to act this week. The initiative effort will be dropped.

Debate in the Senate and Assembly featured ringing endorsements of the charter school concept by rural conservatives, city liberals and many in between.

Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles)--a former teachers union organizer--said the lower house was able to "reach beyond ideological rifts between Democrats and Republicans to find common ground" for improving schools.

Conservative Assemblyman Larry Bowler (R-Elk Grove) called the bill a "trophy of compromise and reason."

Opposition, though small, stood out in the Assembly.

Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles) said that charter schools create "elitist little islands" and that poor parents would have difficulty helping create and maintain a charter school. Three other Los Angeles Democrats representing low-income, minority areas joined Murray in voting no.

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