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Bill Would Convert Capistrano Schools Into Charter District


What started as a longshot wish for more local control over educating children has blossomed into a state bill written for one local school system.

The bill would allow south Orange County's entire Capistrano Unified School District to seek charter status--essentially freeing it from a tangle of state regulations on how much time and money to spend on various subjects and programs.

Capistrano's daring push to virtually secede from state Department of Education control, and its ability to find lawmakers willing to back the effort, are already attracting attention. In the days since state Sen. Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) introduced the bill, it has drawn notice from several freedom-minded Southern California school districts, including Long Beach Unified.

The ability to manage finances without state strings could result in smaller class sizes, increased computer access or more Asian-language classes for Capistrano students, said Supt. James A. Fleming. Individual schools can already petition for such liberties, he reasoned, so why not a district?

"We're saying to the state, 'If you will allow any group of people to have this kind of freedom and flexibility to become a charter school, please be willing to grant that privilege to professional educators' " who want to form a charter district.

So far, three small districts in the Central Valley have converted all their campuses to individual charter schools--which gain more autonomy in exchange for promises of better student performance. But the 43,000-student Capistrano district seeks something slightly different: It hopes to free both individual schools and the district headquarters from onerous rules.

Appealing as more flexibility may sound, the bill (SB 1705) could always stumble. It has dodged potential pitfalls so far by promising that the district will not tinker with union contracts and will stick with the state's high-stakes testing and accountability programs.

The bill could have a broad appeal among educators and legislators, said Teri Burns, the deputy state superintendent for government affairs. The legislation was introduced last month, so Burns' office hasn't yet taken a position, but she sees "no red flags" in the bill.

Problems could pop up when the legislation gets a closer look, predicted Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center at Cal State Sacramento.

If the school district comes out way ahead financially, it could raise equity issues, he said. (The district hasn't yet done a financial analysis, but administrators expect the conversion to be cost-neutral.) If too many others seek the same option, there could be mass defections from the state Education Department.

Charter status would free the district from having to follow much of the voluminous state Education Code, which rules everything from construction standards to directions for filling out paperwork.

Its passage would not automatically convert Capistrano to a charter district; rather, the bill sets parameters for application.

Under Morrow's bill, Capistrano Unified would be able to get state funds for construction, something charter schools cannot do, said Mike Kilbourn, a lobbyist for the Orange County Department of Education.

Under the bill, charter petitions could be granted by the State Board of Education for up to five years, and the board could renew the charter an unlimited number of times.

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