Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010 - A state appeals court strengthened the authority of local school boards over charter schools Monday by making it harder for California education officials to approve statewide charters with campuses in multiple counties.
Charter schools are publicly funded and tuition-free but operate independently of local school districts and their union contracts, though districts are supposed to monitor their performance. They have been proliferating both in California and nationwide.
State law allows the state Board of Education, appointed by the governor, to let a company establish charter schools in far-flung counties without local approval or monitoring. Groups of school boards, administrators and teachers claimed the board was overstepping its authority, and on Monday, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco agreed.
Under a 2002 state law, the court said, the state board can approve a statewide charter only if it offers benefits to students that would be unavailable from locally approved charter schools. Otherwise, the court said, each new charter must be approved by the school district or county education office.
The law was intended "to promote district-chartered schools and local oversight," said Justice Maria Rivera in the 3-0 ruling, which overturned an Alameda County judge's decision.
The effect will be to limit multi-county or statewide charter schools to those offering special programs that appeal to students from a wide area, like magnet schools or military academies, said Deborah Caplan, lawyer for associations of school boards and administrators that sued the state board. The California Teachers Association also sued.
Caplan said the ruling would help to make charter schools "accountable to local needs and to the local student population." She said one purpose of the 2002 law was to protect students at so-called satellite campuses who had been left in the lurch when a charter headquartered in another county ran into financial trouble.
Deputy Attorney General Benjamin Riley, who represented the state Board of Education, said the board was evaluating its options, which include an appeal to the state Supreme Court. Lawyers for Aspire Public Schools, the charter involved in the case, were unavailable for comment.
Aspire, a nonprofit based in Oakland, was operating 17 schools in California, all with local approval, when it applied to the state board in 2005 for a statewide charter that would allow it to open new campuses in additional counties.
The board granted the charter in 2007, finding that Aspire would offer statewide educational benefits but declining to consider whether locally approved charters would accomplish the same purpose. The company then opened schools in Los Angeles and Stockton.
The court said Monday that the board had used the wrong standard, a ruling that would allow board members to reconsider Aspire's application or to require the company to seek local approval.