CA charter schools digging in, expecting a fight

Considered by many nationally as a symbol of reform and innovation, California's charter schools nonetheless face today perhaps their greatest political challenge since the movement began two decades ago.

As evidence, charter advocates point to the surprising progress of a number of restrictive bills through the Legislature this session, coupled with the conspicuous loss to term limits this year of two of their primary champions - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Gloria Romero.

But there's also uncertainty with how charters stand before the new majority at the California State Board of Education.

A year ago, the panel was clearly dominated by charter supporters and charter operators who represented Schwarzenegger. But now under Gov. Jerry Brown, the board has a far different makeup - including one appointee whose day job is as a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association.

Finally, there's Brown himself - who as mayor of Oakland helped establish charter schools and continues to oversee their operations - but remains something of a question mark when it comes to such key issues as charters growth, their funding and accountability.

That's clearly a change from when Schwarzenegger was in office,who gained a reputation for steadily vetoing legislation that was opposed by the association.It is a different feel, too, from the friendly administration of Gray Davis and certainly from the days of Pete Wilson, who signed the original Charter School Act into law.

That setting, said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, has prompted his organization to step up their advocacy efforts in the state house while keeping a close eye on political developments statewide.

I think we are in a period of great transition," he said in an interview last week. "Charter detractors are testing the waters to see if they can roll back the progress that charter schools have made to try and stop momentum.

"It's time for us to not take anything for granted and do everything we can to hold back this unprecedented attack," Wallace said.

Some insiders scoff at the notion that charters are under siege. They argue that since the legislature approved the use of public funds to support charter schools in 1992, charters have become firmly a part of the education community.

Charters continue to enjoy enormous support on a national level - including from the Obama administration and some say, any sense of retrenchment in Sacramento is unfounded.

Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said that there remain clear differences of opinion within the Legislature - but if there's been a change, it's that the tenor of the debate has actually softened.

"One difference between last year and this year is that we are less confrontational," he said. "It doesn't mean that people still don't have deeply held convictions

"But there's a commitment, I think, out of the Brown administration and especially out of the Senate, that all these voices are important," he said. "Let's work on these problems together."

Among the bills that charter schools are watching closely is AB 401 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, which would place a cap on the number of allowable charters in California and won passage to the Senate earlier this month - a similar bill by the author got this far last year before failing in committee.

Other pending bills in the lower house would create new rights and benefits for classified employees that work for charter schools and require charter conversions to be approved by 50 percent of classified staff in addition to half the teachers.

While some of the same ideas from some of the same authors have been brought up before, only to fall by the way-side - some charter school advocates say the landscape is different today.

"Legislation is important, and probably this year it will be playing defense," said former Sen. Gloria Romero, who is now the state director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that bankrolls reform-minded candidates.

Romero, who served last year as chair of the Senate Education Committee, held considerable power over school policy issues while in office. She also helped push through controversial legislation related to reforms around the federal Race to the Top program and parent empowerment - both of which remain under some threat of reversal by critics.

But the veteran Los Angeles Democrat who lost a bid last spring to become state schools chief, said the charter movement will defend itself.

"There's courts," she said. "We're taking a look at various cases. We're looking possibly at initiatives. There always elections, we're gearing up for a new election cycle."

The wildcard, observers say, remains with Gov. Brown.

Indeed, most insiders had considered his choices for the state board of education indicated the Brown administration would not be sympathetic to charter needs.

The first major charter question that came to the board this year - Aspire Public School's statewide benefit charter - pitted the charter community against most of the state's large representatives of traditional public schools, including the California School Boards Association and the CTA.

In a surprise vote, the Brown board backed Aspire.

Still, many long-time education players said the Aspire vote may not mean much.

"I don't think you can predict Jerry," said Barbara O'Connor, long-time political observers and retired director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Sacramento State. "I think he takes the situation case by case."