Sacramento's Poison Pill

“IT’S THE FIRST INTELLIGENT surgical 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 CREDS and 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.

Another force behind Senate Bill 92 appears to be United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). In last Wednesday’s Sacramento Bee, veteran political columnist Dan Walters suggested that Green Dot — the charter group that has lured nearly 4,000 kids from failing schools in L.A. — is also targeted by the proposed law, because of Núñez’s “very close political relationship” to UTLA.

Núñez’s office says Walters is wrong. And A.J. Duffy, president of UTLA, played dumb when contacted by the Weekly, saying, “I don’t know about that bill” — an extreme unlikelihood given the union’s deep tendrils in Sacramento, where the Democrats do not move education bills out of committee until UTLA has weighed in.

When the Weekly asked Duffy why UTLA was suspected of ghostwriting the anti-charter bill, Duffy said he needed to “talk to my issues people” and promised to call back. The union chief never did.

Roger Magyar, executive director of the state Board of Education, says there’s a good chance the governor will veto Senate Bill 92, even if that means a loss of $18 million in special funding for rental assistance, which would earn Schwarzenegger negative headlines on that issue. “He wants to protect the option of statewide charters,” says Magyar.

Larson, meanwhile, says the Democratic majority in Sacramento has continually changed the rules that govern charter schools so they don’t perform well, but despite those efforts, charters are “flourishing” — with an estimated California enrollment of 219,720 students. “We have to stop the turf battles,” he says.

Michael Piscal at Inner City Education Foundation couldn’t agree more. “SB 92 is a punitive law that punishes successful ­organizations,” he says. “It is also punishing the poor.”

In September, his group will open two middle and two high schools in South Los Angeles that are expected to lure 2,000 students away from LAUSD. And if the politicians and unions don’t get in his way, Piscal expects to open more schools, and has a waiting list of 5,021 students.

The reason for the jammed waiting list is the success of Inner City Education Foundation’s flagship school, View Park Preparatory Charter High in Crenshaw.

In June, the prep graduated its entire class of 71 students — all African-Americans. Sixty-five of them are headed to four-year universities and six to junior colleges. That’s not what normally happens to black kids in Crenshaw, home to terrible schools that churn out ­functionally illiterate dropouts. And that’s why the happenings at the Capitol deeply disturb Piscal.

“I’m a Democrat,” he says, “but, overall, I’m appalled by the power of the CTA and how it wants to stop charters. That’s what this stuff is all about.”

On August 20, the Assembly will return to Sacramento from a monthlong recess. Speaker Fabian Núñez can either keep pushing his bill or he can remove the bill’s poison-pill aspects — the only action that would prove to Michael Piscal that Núñez really does support charter schools.

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