California Courts Rule for Charter Schools Again

Published January 1, 2009

A Los Angeles charter middle school is moving into new digs thanks to a court ruling on equal treatment that has national implications. One of the largest obstacles charters nationwide face is finding adequate facilities.

Across the United States, only 26 of the 41 states with charter laws include procedures for providing space. California law requires districts to make unused facilities available to local charters, yet receiving the facilities continues to be a rough road.

Proposition 39, passed in 2000, requires school districts in California to treat charter schools the same as they do other public schools. Wayne Johnson, then-president of the California Teachers Association, told the San Francisco Chronicle charter schools were getting the leftovers and should be entitled to adequate facilities.

New West Charter Case

In the 2007-08 school year, New West Charter Middle School in Los Angeles was looking for a new facility to house its 285 students. The school’s contract on its location was up for renewal in June 2008 and would require $1.5 million in rent. Fairfax Senior High School, just 15 minutes away in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), had unused classrooms that could accommodate the middle schoolers at far less expense.

In October 2007, New West requested the vacant Fairfax classrooms from LAUSD. In April 2008, Fairfax made New West an offer, which the charter school accepted the next day. But only a few hours later, New West received a faxed notice saying LAUSD would not provide the facilities.

New Precedent Set

New West had little choice but to sign the $1.5 million contract for its current space. Administrators took the case to court, arguing the charter had been denied the equal treatment mandated by Proposition 39.

On October 3, 2008 the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled in New West’s favor, ordering Fairfax Senior High to provide 13 classrooms. The transition will take place at the beginning of 2009. New West hopes to sublease its current site in order to recoup the money spent on the legal process.

“This has far-reaching implications for charters nationwide” said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Charter School Association. “This and other cases will have ramifications as to whether or not charter school students will be afforded the same treatment as any other public school students.”

Battles for Support

Charter schools have always faced an uphill battle for support from sponsoring districts. Over the past two years, two similar cases have been brought to California courts by groups denied facility requests by LAUSD.

“Districts do not seem to want to comply with the law,” said Sharon Weir, executive director and principal of New West Charter Middle School. “Now there is a precedent for districts to be held accountable to the law.”

New Performance

Weir doubts the move to new facilities will hurt students’ performance.

The small charter is fulfilling its mission “to provide an academically rigorous, highly individualized education.” New West earned an 867 on the state measurement of the Academic Performance Index (API). A passing proficient score is 800, and New West has exceeded it three years in a row. According to the California Department of Education, this API ranks higher than all other LAUSD middle schools, including public and charter schools.

“It is attributed to the quality of our teaching staff,” said Weir. “They are non-tenured teachers, but they teach wholeheartedly.”

Evelyn Stacey ([email protected]) is a research associate in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, a nonprofit free-market research group in California.