Considered by many nationally as a symbol of reform and
innovation, California’s charter schools nonetheless face today perhaps their
greatest political challenge since the movement began two decades ago.
As evidence, charter advocates point to the surprising
progress of a number of restrictive bills through the Legislature this session,
coupled with the conspicuous loss to term limits this year of two of their
primary champions – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Gloria Romero.
But there’s also uncertainty with how charters stand
before the new majority at the California State Board of Education.
A year ago, the panel was one was clearly dominated by charter
supporters and charter operators who represented Schwarzenegger. But now under
Gov. Jerry Brown, the board has a far different makeup – including one
appointee whose day job is as a legislative advocate for the California
Finally, there’s Brown himself – who as mayor of Oakland
helped establish charter schools and continues to oversee their operations –
but remains something of a question mark when it comes to such key issues as charters
growth, their funding and accountability.
That’s clearly a change from when Schwarzenegger was in
office, who gained a reputation for steadily vetoing legislation that was
opposed by the association. It is a different feel, too, from the friendly
administration of Gray Davis and certainly from the days of Pete Wilson, who
signed the original Charter School Act into law.
That setting, said Jed Wallace, president of the California
Charter Schools Association, has prompted his organization to step up their
advocacy efforts in the state house while keeping a close eye on political
“I think we are in a period of great transition,” he said
in an interview last week. “Charter detractors are testing the waters to see if
they can roll back the progress that charter schools have made to try and stop
“It’s time for us to not take anything for granted and do
everything we can to hold back this unprecedented attack,” Wallace said.
Some insiders scoff at the notion that charters are under
siege. They argue that since the legislature approved the use of public funds
to support charter schools in 1992, charters have become firmly a part of the
Charters continue to enjoy enormous support on a national
level – including from the Obama administration and some say, any sense of retrenchment
in Sacramento is unfounded.
Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Senate
Education Committee, said that there remain clear differences of opinion within
the Legislature – but if there’s been a change, it’s that the tenor of the
debate has actually softened.
between last year and this year is that we are less confrontational,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean that people still don’t have deeply held convictions
“But there’s a commitment, I think, out of the Brown
administration and especially out of the Senate, that all these voices are
important,” he said. “Let’s work on these problems together.”
Among the bills that charter schools are watching closely
is AB 401 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which would place a cap
on the number of allowable charters in California and won passage to the Senate
earlier this month – a similar bill by the author got this far last year before
failing in committee.
Other pending bills in the lower house would create new
rights and benefits for classified employees that work for charter schools and
require charter conversions to be approved by 50 percent of classified staff in
addition to half the teachers.
While some of the same ideas from some of the same
authors have been brought up before, only to fall by the way-side – some
charter school advocates say the landscape is different today.
“Legislation is important, and probably this year it will
be playing defense,” said former Sen. Gloria Romero, who is now the state
director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that
bankrolls reform-minded candidates.
Romero, who served last year as chair of the Senate
Education Committee, held considerable power over school policy issues while in
office. She also helped push through
controversial legislation related to reforms around the federal Race to the Top
program and parent empowerment – both of which remain under some threat of
reversal by critics.
But the veteran Los Angeles Democrat who lost a bid last
spring to become state schools chief, said the charter movement will defend
“There’s courts,” she said. “We’re taking a look at
various cases. We’re looking possibly at initiatives. There always elections,
we’re gearing up for a new election cycle.”
The wildcard, observers say, remains with Gov. Brown.
Indeed, most insiders had considered his choices for the
state board of education indicated the Brown administration would not be
sympathetic to charter needs.
The first major charter question that came to the board
this year – Aspire Public School’s statewide benefit charter – pitted the
charter community against most of the state’s large representatives of
traditional public schools, including the California School Boards Association
and the CTA.
In a surprise vote, the Brown board backed Aspire.
Still, many long-time education players said the Aspire
vote may not mean much.
“I don’t think you
can predict Jerry,” said Barbara O’Connor, long-time political observers and retired
director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento
State. “I think he takes the situation case by case.”
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