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Charter Schools Choke on Rulebook

Red tape and high costs are stifling the populist trend, discouraging breakaway educators and forcing survivors to mimic public districts.

June 01, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Mark Satterlee spent this academic year shutting down a charter school that had never opened.

Satterlee -- a former third-grade teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- and a couple of colleagues from 95th Street Elementary had dreamed of opening their own elementary school in a poor part of L.A. The school would focus on core subjects, with one instructor in math and one in English assigned to each grade. It would have its own health clinic. He planned to call it Nueva Esperanza, or New Hope. He would send his son Marcos to kindergarten there.

After two years of hard work, his school district had granted him a charter. He had even found a building -- in the Rampart area -- and had offered contracts to teachers.

But when September came, Satterlee was not presiding over a new school. He was arranging to return several thousand dollars in public and private grant money. He was apologizing to the building's landlord and returning school supplies.

"It simply got to be too much," Satterlee said. "There were so many rules -- laws to follow -- and more coming down the pike. To handle all of it, we would have needed very rich backers, or to be wealthy ourselves, and we didn't have the money. I finally asked myself whether having a new charter school was more trouble than it was worth."

A decade ago, California launched a populist experiment with charter schools. Teachers, community groups, business owners -- anyone with a worthwhile idea for a school -- could apply to a local school district for a charter. The charter would entitle them to public funds and to operate free of most state regulation.

The idea was to encourage innovation. It gained momentum after President Clinton embraced charters as "public school choice" and as an alternative to vouchers -- direct aid to parents who sent their children to non-public schools.

Enticed by the promise of freedom, some public schools converted to charters; civic-minded entrepreneurs also joined the movement.

But now, for aspiring innovators such as Satterlee, the window of opportunity is closing.

Today the charter movement looks less like an educational laboratory and more like a maturing industry. And the future of charters, leaders in the school business say, lies in creating vast networks or alliances that, in some ways, mimic the giant school districts to which charters were supposed to be an alternative.

The reasons lie in simple economics and in a wave of state regulation that individual entrepreneurs say robs charters of much of the freedom that made them so appealing in the first place.

The new regulations were adopted in part to curb abuses. Around the state, charters have been revoked at 20 of the 473 schools that have obtained them. Reasons have ranged from the teaching of religion to the funding of lavish lifestyles for founders.

But these rules have also complicated the starting and operating of charter schools. They require extensive paperwork and financial disclosure, limit where and when the schools can operate and subject them to three levels of overlapping oversight by local boards of education, counties and the state.

Although the first dozen charter-school applications approved a decade ago averaged fewer than 20 pages, nowadays they tend to run to more than 100.

Meeting new requirements costs money. Applications alone often require expensive advice from lawyers, accountants and other professionals.

But many charters are cash-poor, especially before they open and can begin collecting public funds linked to attendance. Simply to survive, operators say, they must prize size and scale. Their imperative is grow or die.

Satterlee is just one of those who worry that the state is squeezing the innovation out of charters.

In Los Angeles, TV director David Eagle has spent the last four years trying to open a charter school. He says he has been slowed by bureaucratic requirements governing matters from student admissions policies to special education insurance.

In San Francisco, Peter Thorp, founding principal of the charter Gateway High, stopped teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history this year to focus on administrative and compliance issues. "I'm looking at how we can survive," he said.

Near Sacramento, Natomas Charter School has had to hire a chief financial officer and build up its business office to comply with rules.

California charters face more regulations than those in most other states, but efforts to oversee such schools more closely have gained in states ranging from Texas to New York. And as bureaucratic burdens have increased, start-ups have leveled off.

Of the nation's 2,695 charters, 383 opened last fall. That is down from 472 openings in 1999, according to the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which promotes charter schools.

In California, 79 charters opened this school year, giving the state a total of 436; that 21% growth rate over the previous year is down from 51% in 1999.

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