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Bill Would Let Private Entities Form Charters

Universities, big-city mayors and others would be given the power to authorize new alternative public schools.

March 18, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

Colleges and universities, big-city mayors and not-for-profit corporations could authorize publicly funded charter schools under a proposal now before the state Legislature.

If enacted, the measure would represent a dramatic departure in how California governs charters, public schools that are held exempt from some regulations to encourage innovation.

Since they began in California a decade ago, charters have been required to seek authorization from local school districts before opening. If denied, they can appeal to the state Board of Education.

But Assembly Bill 1464, sponsored by Assemblywoman Patricia C. Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), for the first time would allow some private entities to authorize the opening of public schools.

The California Network of Educational Charters, which represents about 70% of the state's charters, is expected to launch a public campaign for the measure today.

The new measure would allow colleges and universities to approve new charters.

Also granted such powers would be not-for-profit organizations with significant assets (the measure requires at least $2 million); Bates said such groups first would be vetted by the state.

The bill also proposes to give mayors of 11 California cities -- those with populations of more than 250,000 -- power to grant charters in hopes of speeding reform of urban schools. Fresno Mayor Alan Autry and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown said in interviews Monday that they plan to work aggressively for the bill.

"Cities can handle this," Brown said.

California now has 436 charter schools serving more than 160,000 students. But as the movement has grown, charter operators have complained that local school districts lack the expertise and resources to monitor so many schools. A state auditor's report released late last year found that four large school districts failed to oversee the charter schools in their jurisdictions.

By allowing alternative entities to authorize charters, the state could improve oversight, advocates of the measure argue. Charters also would benefit financially; federal funding guidelines give priority to states that allow multiple, non-government charter authorizers.

"The argument is that it would drag many more interested participants into charter schools," says former USC education school dean Guilbert C. Hentschke, who follows the charter school movement closely. "It would really help open up the thinking on charters."

In its details, the proposed measure borrows heavily from other states. Universities are the primary authorizers of charter schools in New York and Michigan. The mayor of Indianapolis has the ability to authorize charters. And Minnesota law allows not-for-profits with at least $2 million in assets to authorize charters. In all, 12 states have laws that allow multiple entities to authorize charters.

"The more groups that get involved, the better," said Steve Dess, executive director of the Minnesota Charter Schools Assn. "It allows groups that are very interested in education to take a strategic and real stake in a state's educational program."

School districts have yet to take a position on the matter, though San Diego, where charters are popular, has expressed support.

The California Teachers Assn., which has been critical of charters, will discuss the measure at an internal meeting later this month.

Charter school advocates hope to convince skeptics by also supporting a different bill that creates difficult new requirements for charters.

That measure, sponsored by frequent charter critic Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), would force charter schools to meet certain standards on state tests or risk being shut down. Specifically, charter schools -- which must renew their charters every five years to stay open -- would be able to renew only if they achieved a ranking of at least 4 (out of a possible 10) among schools of similar demographics on the state's Academic Performance Index.

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