New California Charter Law Boosts School Choice

Published June 1, 1998

California’s citizen initiative process scored a major victory for school choice on May 7, when Governor Pete Wilson signed into law a bill that dramatically strengthens the state’s charter school law, allowing an immediate doubling of the number of schools and making it easier for citizens to form charter schools.

The new law heads off an even more expansive ballot initiative, supported by a group of Silicon Valley electronics executives and strongly opposed by the California Teachers Association.

“A world-class educational system must operate under the same principles that drive the success of Silicon Valley: accountability, competition, quality control,” declared Wilson in signing the bill at the San Carlos Learning Center, one of California’s first charter schools.

Under the new law, introduced by Assemblyman Ted Lempert, a Democrat from San Carlos, the current cap of 100 charter schools is lifted by 150 additional schools next year and by 100 more each year after that. As well as simplifying the process to form a charter school, the law also makes denial by local school boards more difficult–and requires them to provide charters with free school space, if available.

“Every community in the state of California can now have a charter school,” exulted Don Shalvey, Superintendent of the San Carlos Elementary School District and co-author, with businessman Reed Hastings, of the initiative.

Although California, the second state in the nation to pass a charter school law, has more charter school students than any other state, the creation of new charter schools in recent years has been stymied by an arbitrary cap of 100 schools in the original 1992 law. While the Governor and the state House of Representatives favored removing the cap, opposition from the California Teachers Association influenced the state Senate to reject any expansion proposal.

To break the impasse, the Technology Network, a group of Silicon Valley businesses, developed a ballot initiative to lift the cap and provide the legal and financial framework to support the growth of more than 2,000 quality charter schools. Provisions of the initiative included a streamlined approval process and clarification of the constitutionality of reasonably independent charter schools.

The initiative also would allow parents of the worst public schools to bring in an already successful charter operator to operate the site. To enforce strict accountability, a mechanism would be available to close charter schools that did not produce the superior results required of them.

“What charters are about is a mandate for change in the entire district,” said TechNet’s Hastings. “The purpose of charter public schools is to create change in a school district so that all of the schools get better,” he added.

By late April, the initiative campaign organization, Californians for Public School Excellence, had collected the more than one million signatures needed to put the initiative on the ballot in November. Faced with the prospect of having to fight a statewide campaign costing an estimated $15 million, the California Teachers Association agreed to endorse Lempert’s bill if it also required more charter school oversight and certification of charter school teachers.

The compromise bill sailed through the California House and Senate by overwhelming votes, 60-4 in the House and 29-3 in the Senate. When the bill was signed into law, the ballot initiative was dropped.

“Most of those restrictions have now been eliminated, and the number of students attending charter schools in California should double or triple in the next few years,” predicted charter school expert Jim Spady, whose efforts to secure approval for charter schools in Washington state also have been frustrated by Senate lawmakers.

The Washington, DC-based Center for Education Reform rates the new California charter school law as the second strongest in the nation, as strong as that in Michigan and second only to that in Arizona.

“California has taken tremendous education reform steps this year,” observes Paul Seibert of Charter Consultants in Belleville, Illinois, “both to quiet the protesting public school masses and to stem the relocation of high-tech businesses to regions capable of providing better-educated workforces.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].