Victory for charter school students in lawsuit against LAUSD

April 09, 2015 | By JOSHUA THOMPSON

The California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in California Charter Schools Association v. Los Angeles Unified School District. This case concerns how school districts are to properly comply with Proposition 39 — an initiative adopted by voters to ensure that charter school students are treated fairly when school districts allocate funds and facilities. The Supreme Court reversed the court of appeal, and held that LAUSD failed to abide Proposition 39 when it used an ad hoc method for calculating facilities allocations.

PLF has been following this case for some time. After Proposition 39 was adopted by voters in 2000, the Department of Education adopted regulations that specifically explain how school districts are to calculate facilities that charter school students are entitled. There is literally a step-by-step process that school districts are supposed to follow. According to the Court, “[t]he regulations prescribe a specific, transparent method for deriving the ADA/classroom ratio to be applied in allocating classrooms to charter schools.”

LAUSD ignored this process, and instead based its facilities offer on “norming ratios” that it argued was a better method for complying with Proposition 39. The Supreme Court held that LAUSD violated the law. In what can be described as one of the most obvious conclusions of law ever uttered by a state supreme court, the California Supreme Court held that, “the District may not unilaterally impose on charter schools a method of determining ADA/classroom ratios that is at odds with the governing regulation.”

The Supreme Court went on to discuss some of the ambiguities in the governing regulations. For example, it explained that, “unbuilt classrooms, classrooms already used by charter schools, and classrooms dedicated to preschool, adult education, or other uses besides K-12 education” should not be counted by school districts when determining a proper facilities offer. It also said — contrary to LAUSD’s argument — that simply because LAUSD chooses not to staff a classroom with a teacher, does not mean that it can decide not to count that classroom when making its facilities offer to charter schools.

Since LAUSD’s facilities offer was so obviously deficient, the Court was not presented with a proper record to adjudicate every conceivable classification that could be considered a classroom. Thus, it left to a future case the question of whether, for example, “a room formerly used for K-12 classroom instruction but now used to store K-12 school supplies” should be counted by a school district when making its facilities offer.

This is an important victory for charter school students in California. If school districts could simply devise their own method of complying with Proposition 39, charter school students would have no way of enforcing their educational rights. This point was not lost on the California Supreme Court: “The District‘s alternative would require a charter school either to simply accept the District‘s assurance that its norming ratios produce reasonable equivalence in facilities between the charter school and its comparison group schools, or to compel the District through litigation to demonstrate reasonable equivalence.” That the precise contours of the Proposition 39 regulations are still, somewhat, open to debate, does not detract from the important victory secured by charter school students today.