August 23, 2013

#Back2SchoolChoice — Protecting charter schools in California

By Joshua P. Thompson Senior Attorney

Thanks for joining us this week for Back to School Choice Week.  All week we discussed PLF cases, important ideas in school choice, and explained why supporting choice in education is vitally important for American students.  We discussed a lot of these issues in this school choice podcast as well.

In this final installment, I wanted to explain two important California charter school cases that PLF is involved in.  Both California Charter Schools Association v. LAUSD and Bullis Charter School v. Los Altos School District will shape the state of charter school law in California in the coming years. 

In California Charter Schools Association, PLF is supporting Los Angeles charter schools in a challenge to the Los Angeles school district’s attempt to deny them equal facilities.  Proposition 39 is a landmark law that was passed by California voters back in 2000.  After nearly a decade of school districts denying equal facilities to charter schools, California voters had enough.  They passed Proposition 39, which affirmatively requires schools districts to provide charters school students facilities that are “reasonably equivalent” to those that they provide to their own traditional public school students. Of course, the term “reasonably equivalent” is subject to some interpretation, so the California Department of Education adopted some very precise regulations to guide school district in determining what “reasonably equivalent” means.”

In CCSA, the Los Angeles Unified School District didn’t much care for the regulations that were adopted by the Department of Education, so it decided it wasn’t going to follow them.  In a very convoluted opinion, LAUSD convinced the court of appeal that if it had to follow the regulations, facility allocations between traditional public schools and charter schools would be “anomalous.”  But the charter schools petitioned the Supreme Court for review of that convoluted opinion, and last April the Supreme Court granted its request.  Briefing is nearly complete in the Supreme Court.  In the coming months, PLF will be filing its second brief with that court, arguing that school districts should not be allowed to ignore the properly vetted regulations.  Regulations are passed only after significant input from the regulated public.  If school districts are allowed to ignore those regulations, and simply adopt whatever method they prefer for determining “reasonably equivalent” facilities, charter school students will suffer.  Voters passed Proposition 39 for a reason, and school districts cannot thwart voter intent so openly.

Bullis Charter School is another case involving Proposition 39.  Back in 2011, Bullis Charter School won a landmark decision enforcing Proposition 39.  After years of being denied equal facilities by the Los Altos School District, Bullis sued and won the right to equal facilities.  The court of appeal issued a very strong opinion, denouncing many of the shady tactics employed by the school district to deny Bullis equal facilities.  Sounds great, right?  Not so fast.  After the trial court entered final judgment ordering the school district to provide the facilities to Bullis, the school district argued that since it was a new school year, the writ was meaningless.  It argued that Bullis would have to bring a whole new Proposition 39 action based on the facts of the new school year.

So, if the school district has its way, a Proposition 39 lawsuit will never be able to be enforced.  Because a lawsuit takes years to resolve, there is no way that a charter school can get a court of appeal to rule on a facilities offer in time for enforcement in any given school year.  PLF is supporting Bullis and asking the court of appeal to enforce the writ of mandate issued back in 2011.  If a school district, with a demonstrated history of violating Proposition 39, can simply drag its feet, and then argue that the underlying facts have changed to make the writ unenforceable, Proposition 39 will be rendered toothless.  That is clearly contrary to the California voters’ intent, who passed Proposition 39 to ensure that charter schools get equal facilities.

The coming months are going to be huge for the state of charter schools in California.  As charter schools represent California children’s best hope for injecting choice into education, PLF will be there in the courts supporting them.

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