Los Angeles school district officials won a key legal battle with charter schools this week, when an appeals court struck down a ruling that could have opened up vast numbers of classrooms for charters, while also creating potential hardships for traditional neighborhood schools.
The decision means that charter schools will continue to receive space in much the same way as traditional schools: If the Los Angeles Unified School District puts 26 students in a classroom, then charters will be allotted rooms based on the same ratio.
The California Charter Schools Assn. had argued that its operators were entitled to more space because the district uses many rooms for purposes other than regular classroom instruction.
Charters are free, publicly funded schools that are independently operated. Under state law, school districts must offer space to charters that is "reasonably equivalent" to that provided for students on traditional campuses.
The association had prevailed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but a three-judge California Court of Appeals unanimously reversed that decision Wednesday.
The analysis offered by the association "may well have anomalous results," wrote Judge Edward A. Ferns. "For example, the district would have to count classrooms that have been contracted for but not yet built and classrooms at closed school sites." Ferns cited a ruling in another case to note that a statute should not be construed to create "absurd results."
L.A. Unified had painted a grim scenario, in which charter students would enjoy small classes at a neighborhood campus that could see its own students bused elsewhere and deprived of rooms needed for services to disabled students and students learning English, among others.
"Hundreds of classrooms across the district" would have been affected, said attorney David Huff, who represented L.A. Unified. Charters would have been provided space at an average rate of 15 students per classroom, whereas the district average is about 26 per classroom, he said.
An attorney for the association challenged whether district students would have faced any hardships.
"There was no evidence to support any of those assertions," Julie Umansky said. The original court order "would have required the district to go through its inventory and evaluate classroom space. We would hope that would have resulted in more classrooms available for charter schools."
Thousands of charter students attend substandard campuses compared to district-owned campuses, said Sierra Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the charter association. She asserted that, until the group sued in 2007, illegal inaction by L.A. Unified forced charters to fend entirely for themselves.
A 2008 settlement failed to end the legal jousting, which, in 2012, resulted in the court order successfully challenged by L.A. Unified.
Last year, 81 charters requested space and the district concluded that 67 were eligible. Of these, 45 accepted the district's offer, which is good for one year.
The district offered an amount of space "equivalent to the Pasadena Unified School District," Huff said.
Charters are typically charged about $6.25 per square foot annually for "operations and safety" costs, Huff said.
On 58 campuses, a charter and an L.A. Unified-run school co-exist side by side, a sometimes uncomfortable arrangement.
For next year, 79 charters have applied for space.
L.A. Unified has more independent charter schools, 185, than any other school system in the country.
The association has not yet decided if it will ask the court to rehear the matter or if it will pursue a California Supreme Court review, Umansky said.