By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“IT’S THE FIRST INTELLIGENTsurgical strike I’ve seen against charter schools,” Michael Piscal says over the phone from his Crenshaw office at View Park Preparatory. “All of the anti-charter people thought we were a fad and we would just fade away. Now they realize we aren’t going anywhere, and they’re trying to do something about it.”
Piscal, chief executive officer for the Los Angeles–based Inner City Education Foundation, is talking about a “trailer bill” called Senate Bill 92. It would make opening and operating charter schools throughout California extremely difficult, if not impossible. The bill, according to Piscal, is the harshest and most serious effort to stop the expansion of charter schools in California.
Senate Bill 92 was born in the middle of the night on July 20 in Sacramento. Attached to the massive $145 billion California state budget, the bill was quietly passed in the California State Assembly after an all-night session and without a public hearing.
The proposed law would prohibit the California State Board of Education from allowing statewide charter schools to operate longer than three years — a limitation that would discourage schools from opening. After the three years are up, the fate of each school would be turned over to local elected school boards — many of whom oppose charter schools as an incursion against the public schools.
Assembly Democrats are trying to force Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the law, by tying the bill to an $18 million pot of money earmarked for rental assistance for charter schools in low-income areas.
“It was an attempt to make the governor look really bad through midnight legislation,” says Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association, an industry lobbying group. “The Democrats chose to either beat up on poor kids now, or hurt them later by preventing access to charter schools later.”
Larson, a seasoned Sacramento watcher who keeps a close eye on the Legislature, was completely surprised by the passage of Senate Bill 92 — and the public was left even more in the dark. “It was done under the cover of night,” he says. “We were shocked.”
Green Dot, Inner City Education Foundation and the Knowledge Is Power Program — high-performing charter schools — want to expand statewide. Under the proposed law’s three-year limit, plans to go statewide would be nearly impossible. Moreover, the law would strip power from the state Board of Education — which has been fairly supportive of charter schools — and unfriendly school boards could quickly pull the plug on a charter school no matter how well it is performing.
Oddly, the man behind Senate Bill 92 is self-described charter-school supporter and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who represents a Los Angeles district where 52 charter schools operate, and where Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa touts charter schools.
The Mayor’s Office declined to comment on Núñez’s bill. Written by Rick Simpson, Núñez’s deputy chief of staff, Senate Bill 92 was probably instigated behind closed doors by the California Teachers Association, according to Larson, a powerful union with an anti-charter-schools history. Simpson acknowledged to the L.A. Weekly that he spoke to the Education Coalition, which includes CTA, before writing the bill.
These unions are, in essence, challenging the power of the California State Board of Education to approve charter schools. Last January, Núñez took up their cause and sent a letter to the Board of Education, demanding that it stop approving statewide charter-school entities.
The Board of Education, which is appointed by Schwarzenegger, is led by an outspoken educator, the Mexican-American and bilingual — but non-Hispanic-named — Kenneth Noonan. Noonan is a big believer in — and practitioner of — teaching intensive English reading and writing to Latino immigrant children. But Núñez and the Legislature’s powerful Latino Caucus have tried, repeatedly, to torpedo the intensive-English approach favored by Noonan and Schwarzenegger and approved by voters under Proposition 227.
WITH HIS ETHNIC CREDSand fluent Spanish, Noonan is a thorn in Núñez’s side. So when Núñez demanded that the Board of Education get out of the charter-approval business, the board ignored Núñez and sent him a message, green-lighting a statewide charter for the Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools.
Nearly seven months later, Núñez trotted out Senate Bill 92 in the dead of night — filled with language similar to the controversial Assembly Bill 1609, which was dropped by its author, Mark Leno, under public pressure.
California Teachers Association spokeswoman Becky Zoglman tried to distance the CTA from the controversy, saying, “We don’t have a position on it right now.” She points out that the union has a good relationship with Green Dot charter schools in L.A., because Green Dot teachers formed a CTA-affiliated union known as Association de Maestros Unidos. “We’re not opposed to charter schools,” Zoglman insists.
Still, the powerful CTA, which has been known to drop tens of millions of dollars in a single election season to get its way at the ballot box, sent a blistering letter to Noonan in March, accusing the Board of Education of acting “arbitrarily, capriciously, and in abuse of discretion” in approving Aspire Public Schools statewide. Citing the obscure Education Code Section 47605.8, the CTA argued that a charter school can be approved only if it offers “instructional services of a statewide benefit.” Aspire, according to the union, doesn’t provide a “statewide benefit.” When asked by the Weekly if it’s a statewide benefit if students graduate from high school and can then attend college, Zoglman avoided the question and changed the subject.
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