Regulations Hamper Private Schooling Efforts in California

Published March 1, 2005

California school choice advocates should consider shifting some of their resources away from the voucher movement to contest cumbersome regulations that affect the supply of private schooling in the Golden State, according to a recent report from the Reason Foundation. Even if demand-side reforms occurred and voucher programs were made operational, the low supply of private schools “would prevent those reforms from succeeding,” the report concludes.

While demand for better schools–private, charter, and public–has been increasing, the supply has not kept up because of state-level regulatory barriers. The report posits current regulations “shift back the supply curve, keeping potential entrepreneurs out of the market, reducing the amount of new school capacity, and raising its price.”

The December 2004 report, “Addition and Subtraction: State and Local Regulatory Obstacles to Opening a New Private School,” provides an analysis of California’s main regulatory hurdles and recommendations for improvement. The report was written by Bahaa Seireg, a George Mason University Ph.D. candidate.

Excessive Regulation Noted

The report provides compelling, if anecdotal, evidence in the form of three case studies.

In one example, Michael Leahy, founder of the Alsion Montessori Middle/High School, estimated the cost of his building should have been $400,000, but the total came to nearly $1.2 million because of several state regulations, “like the one requiring that he install a red tile roof.”

“Children and parents want and need real educational choices,” said Lisa Snell, the study’s project director and director of education at the Reason Foundation. “But we aren’t seeing more private schools because the government buries anyone interested in building a school under a mountain of needless regulations. The resulting lack of competition among private schools is fueling increases in private school tuition.”

Reason’s report identifies four main sources of regulation faced by those trying to open new schools:

  • the State Environmental Quality Act (SEQA), which imposes barriers to land acquisition and modifications of structures on schools’ land;
  • city zoning requirements, which impose restrictions on where schools can be located;
  • city parking requirements; and,
  • state and local building codes, which impose restrictions on design and construction of school buildings.

Time, Money Wasted

According to Seireg, each regulation is potentially time-consuming, expensive, process-intensive, and “predicated on the city planner’s belief that there is one best answer to all decisions about building.”

SEQA, for example, requires a particularly lengthy process involving several land studies, all shouldered financially by the landowner, and an eventual public notice posting of a detailed Environmental Impact Report. Zoning regulations and enforcement processes are often prolonged, as well.

“The basic purpose of zoning regulations is to protect neighboring properties and owners from potentially adverse impacts of certain uses,” says Geoffrey Goodfellow, planning director for Santa Clara, California. He adds the local public school district makes available closed school sites to private schools, and Santa Clara does not require a city review for the private use of these public buildings.

Even after years of working through the process, however, a permit application can be rejected because of the influence of a few local voices of opposition on decision-makers at a lead agency. This, says Seireg, makes the purchase of land for a private school “very risky.”

Improvements Proposed

Seireg maintains that a performance planning approach to building regulation would improve the situation for private schooling. That approach, he said, gives landowners more flexibility to “use the land as they see fit,” while remaining accountable for damages to the property.

“A performance planning approach focuses on end results rather than prescriptive policies,” Seireg writes. He notes performance-based planning approaches have succeeded elsewhere.

“Performance standards that deal directly with actual and measurable impacts on the specific area would result in fewer regulations, less paperwork, a much simpler approval process, and ultimately, more schools,” Snell stated.

Kate McGreevy ([email protected]) is a freelance education writer from Indiana. She formerly worked with the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The December 2004 report, “Addition and Subtraction: State and Local Regulatory Obstacles to Opening a New Private School,” is available online at