Six years after the Legislature opened the door for parents and teachers to create charter schools, only 134 out of 8,000 public schools in California have joined the movement.
Charters have been granted to 21 schools in Los Angeles County, 20 in San Diego County and one in Orange County. But 27 counties, including Ventura, have none at all.
Charter schools--supported by tax dollars but given freedom from district bureaucracy--could proliferate more rapidly if voters approve a fall initiative sponsored by Reed Hastings, a teacher turned software millionaire turned education graduate student.
"There's a demand for many times" the number of charter schools already established, Hastings said. "What we want to do is put as much control in the principals' hands, and the teachers', as possible. Everybody agrees that local is better."
His initiative, the latest in a series of proposals to overhaul public schools through the ballot box, was endorsed last month by Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren. And many education groups are taking Hastings seriously, in part because he is talking about having a $15-million campaign chest.
First, he has to collect 693,230 valid voter signatures by May 1 to put the measure--proposed as a constitutional amendment--on the November ballot.
Charter schools have bipartisan political appeal. President Clinton and a number of Republican lawmakers champion them as an answer to parent demands for "school choice." Nationwide, more than 780 have been established since Minnesota passed the first charter-school law in 1991.
The freedom given these schools does not guarantee success, of course. Some charters have been withdrawn or revoked. Edutrain Charter School in Los Angeles was shut down in 1995 after piling up large debts.
There also are plenty of skeptics. Some say charter schools lack fiscal and academic controls. Others fear they could feed the movement to privatize schools through vouchers. And in a state where standardized testing has been in flux for years, there are few reliable yardsticks to compare charters with traditional schools.
When the nonpartisan state legislative analyst's office received a report on charter schools in December from a research group based in Menlo Park, SRI International, the authors were unable to draw "definitive conclusions" about their performance, saying "the available data are insufficient."
Without such proof, some education groups argue, the state should proceed cautiously.
"The truth is, we don't oppose charter schools per se," said Tommye Hutto, communications manager for the 280,000-member California Teachers Assn. "But we want to be sure that the students, teachers and taxpayers will be protected."
Hastings expects the union, a major player in education politics, to oppose the ballot initiative. It is worried in part about language that would remove teachers from the charter-approval process.
The initiative is co-sponsored by Don Shalvey, superintendent of San Carlos Elementary School District in the Bay Area, site of the state's first charter school. Among its key provisions:
* Removal of limits on the number of charter schools allowed statewide and within a given district. Current law allows the state to exceed 100 charter schools only with approval from the state Board of Education, and it limits most districts to 10 such schools each.
* Removal of a requirement that half the teachers in a school, or 10% of the teachers in a school district, sign petitions in support of a charter school.
* A proposal to spur the creation of charter schools in areas served by public schools ranked in the state's academic cellar, the bottom 10%, under standards to be established by the state Board of Education.
The initiative also would allow charter schools to incorporate as nonprofit institutions, beef up teacher standards, prohibit the promotion of religion, require gains in student achievement and limit the use of charters by home schoolers.
The principal of Orange County's only charter school said some of Hastings' ideas make little sense to her.
Mary Ann Owsley, principal of Santiago Middle School before and after it won state charter No. 66, said schools that reorganize under charters ought to have faculty approval. Thirty-two out of 34 teachers backed Santiago's petition in 1994. The school opened under its charter in September 1995.
The principal acknowledged that there is little in the way of test scores to show that her 1,025 students are better off. But she insisted the school has used its money wisely.
A 13-member governing board of parents, educators and community members oversees a $4 million annual budget. Class size is 28 students per teacher, lower than the Orange Unified School District average.
Parent surveys indicate strong support, and all parents must log at least 12 volunteer hours a year--chaperoning field trips, making pizza in the cafeteria, planting trees or even substitute teaching. Administrators have put students in uniforms, sought competitive bids for contracts and stiffened grade-to-grade promotion standards--all without waiting for approval from Sacramento or the local school board.
"There is a tremendous change in people's thought process when you have local control," Owsley said. "You start to understand that you're making decisions for yourself. You get to take the credit if it's a good idea and take responsibility if it's a bad one."
Hastings, 37, of Santa Cruz, said the initiative is the fruit of five years of thinking prompted by a failed 1993 initiative that would have allowed publicly funded vouchers, which students could use to attend private schools. He opposed Proposition 174, he said, but wondered what else could be done to improve public schools.