The Story of California's Charter School Legislation

By Hart, Gary K.; Burr, Sue | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Story of California's Charter School Legislation

Hart, Gary K., Burr, Sue, Phi Delta Kappan

Mr. Hart and Ms. Burr describe the history of California's S.B. 1448 and offer suggestions for ways to improve it. While charter schools are not panaceas for all that ails public education, the authors argue that they are powerful tools to spur innovation and systemic change.

This article describes how two progressive lifelong Democrats - one a former public school teacher and veteran chair of the state Senate Education Committee, the other an unrepentant education policy wonk who served as consultant to that committee - initiated the charter school movement in California. We describe the impetus for charter school legislation, summarize its arduous political/legislative journey, suggest needed improvements to expand charter schools, and, finally, look at charter schools through the lens of other education reform issues.

Impetus for Charter School Legislation

The voucher threat. To understand the impetus for charter school legislation in California, it is important to examine the political context in which it was enacted. Sen. Gary Hart introduced S.B. 1448, a charter school bill drafted by Sue Burr, in January 1992, just as public debate about school vouchers in California was heating up. A group of potentially well-funded voucher proponents, led by one of the state's top business leaders, had drafted and were circulating a ballot initiative that would entitle parents to send their children to any school - public or private - they chose. Under the terms of the initiative, funding for these "voucher-redeeming" schools would come from public coffers. This was not a modest voucher pilot proposal, but a full-blown effort to reconstitute public education in California.

Of course, California has long been at the forefront of legislating by initiative. Witness our famous property-tax-slashing Proposition 13 of 1978 - the deleterious effects of which are well known. Perhaps not so well understood, but certainly far-reaching in its impact, was Proposition 140 in 1990, which imposed very restrictive term limits on state legislators and constitutional officers. There have been other less prominent examples, but in each case the proponents of the initiative were badly underestimated by the political establishment, which found time and again that the electorate refused to be taken for granted.

Because of this history, we were convinced that the voucher initiative should not be taken lightly. It was almost like playing Russian roulette with public education, except instead of having a one-in-six chance of being hit by a deadly blow, the odds were closer to 50-50. Something had to be done to respond to the public's frustration with public schools, and it seemed possible to us to craft a legislative proposal that did not sacrifice the attractive features of the voucher movement - namely, choice of schools, local control, and responsiveness to clients - while still preserving the basic principles of public education: that it be free, nonsectarian, and nondiscriminatory.(1)

Previous education reform efforts. To be successful in thwarting the voucher initiative, we believed that any alternatives we offered would have to be truly innovative. We had already taken steps down that path through an experiment in decentralization begun in 1990 through S.B. 1274 (sponsored by Hart). That bill established a demonstration program in school restructuring that granted close to 200 schools greater flexibility in exchange for greater accountability. To complement that effort, S.B. 662 (also sponsored by Hart) was enacted in 1991. That bill established a new statewide pupil achievement test to ensure that schools given more freedom would still be held accountable through the use of a standard measurement tool. With decentralization under way and an effective assessment tool under development, a move toward charter schools seemed to be a natural evolution of the education reform process.

However, previous attempts at education reform had followed a fairly typical pattern.

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