State Study Urges Removal of Cap on Charter Schools

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A state watchdog agency released a glowing report on charter schools Thursday, saying the experiment to free 100 campuses from government regulations should be expanded to include any school ready to accept responsibility for its actions.

Gov. Pete Wilson immediately embraced the Little Hoover Commission report, which landed just as state legislators begin to seriously consider lifting the current 100-school cap on charters.

"We must provide others with this same opportunity--a true choice to restore excellence and accountability in this state's public schools," Wilson said in a statement.

Some other charter supporters took a more moderate stance, however, suggesting that it would be prudent to raise the limit, rather than remove it completely, pending an in-depth review of student achievement gains and fiscal operations.

"My concern is the possibility that some shyster could be running a charter and the kids might not be learning or they might not be showing up at all," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. "The possibility exists for some shenanigans here."

Statewide school employee unions, which dislike the charter law's provision that allows schools to decide whether to use union labor, oppose any cap increase.

California became one of the first states to allow charter schools three years ago, when Wilson signed legislation giving virtual autonomy to schools in return for proof of student achievement.

Currently, 89 charter schools serving about 36,000 students operate statewide. Their approaches vary widely, from an online school in Perris where students attend via the Internet, to a two-room schoolhouse in South Los Angeles that emphasizes back-to-basics education. The remaining 11 charter schools are not yet in operation.

The original legislation called for the first 100 charters to be evaluated by the state in 1999, although pending legislation calls for that review to be moved up to 1997. Last month, faced with the first request to exceed the cap, the State Board of Education granted four additional waivers.

The Little Hoover Commission, meanwhile, had embarked on its own months-long review, holding two public hearings and visiting more than two dozen schools. It found enough promise to recommend that charters be granted even greater powers. Report recommendations include:

* Once established, charter schools should receive funds directly from the state rather than having to battle local districts for their due.

* Parents and community members should be allowed to start charter schools without meeting the strict requirement that half the teachers in a school--or 10% of a district's teaching corps--approve the proposal.

* Charter schools should be recognized as separate government entities, liable for their own finances and accountable for their students' performance. That recommendation seeks to clarify a confusing element of the original law, which forced districts to relinquish control of charter schools but still held them accountable for mistakes.

The commission even found elements of success in the state's only charter failure: Edutrain Charter School in downtown Los Angeles, which left behind a trail of debts when it was shut down a year ago because of accounting inconsistencies.

"If a school is not succeeding, we're able to address it in the charter school movement," said Jeannine L. English, the commission's executive director, adding that the Los Angeles Unified School District quickly moved to close Edutrain after learning of its troubles.

However, others argue that Edutrain had been failing financially for nearly two years before the district was told about the problem by a state auditor, who had included the school in a random review.

"It festered for two years and people's lives were screwed up," said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the union representing Los Angeles Unified teachers.

The report drew mixed reactions from legislators who will ultimately decide whether any of the commission's recommendations become law.

Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-Novato), who has introduced five different charter school bills this session--one of which calls for increasing the cap to 390--said her staff was combing through the report for ideas.

State Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said it would be ludicrous to grant more charters and begin amending the law, before the review promised in the original legislation is complete.

"Let's see the assessment first," Greene said. "Charter schools are in six different delicious flavors and I want to see if all the flavors taste good."

On the student achievement front, the report largely skirts the proof-of-performance issue, maintaining that meaningful assessment is difficult at any school. Instead, it emphasizes surveys showing high parent and teacher satisfaction with the schools.

Because charter school attendance is voluntary, "a charter school that does not keep parents satisfied will not exist long," the report states.

But Eastin, the state superintendent, joined others in downplaying such subjective measures of success.

"The legislation is very clear that the point of this is student achievement," Eastin said. "It's not about parents feeling good or whatever."

On fiscal matters, the commission cites the savings that some charters have achieved, which has allowed flexibility to lower class sizes, try innovative programs and in some cases build additional classrooms.

Washington Charter School in Desert Sands, for instance, saved $25,000 overnight simply by switching from district to private custodial and gardening crews.

But that decision also drew a legal challenge from the classified employees union, the California School Employees Assn., which found Principal Carole Horlock in a Los Angeles Superior courtroom Thursday afternoon.

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