Aspire and State Board give up fight over controversial charters

After a six-year legal battle, Aspire Public Schools and the State Board of Education have agreed to give up the permit that enabled Aspire to open a half-dozen charter schools without local district approval.
The much-watched settlement, reached last month, will likely discourage the State Board from granting similar “statewide benefit charters” and marks a clear victory for the California School Boards Association, the California Teachers Association and other education groups that had filed suit. They had argued that the State Board had violated the law in granting Aspire authority to open schools under a statewide benefit charter. Two courts agreed with them, leading the State Board and Aspire to give up the fight, except for a procedural issue that the State Board is still contesting.
Under the deal, Aspire will forgo the right to apply for another statewide benefit charter for five years. Aspire and the State Board will split $300,000 of the plaintiffs’ legal fees. However, Aspire won’t have to close the six schools that opened in San Juan Unified, Stockton Unified and Los Angles Unified while the case was being litigated. In moves that made the settlement possible, all three districts have agreed to become the new charter authorizers for the schools.
At issue was a section in the state Education Code that permits the State Board to grant a statewide charter to an organization that “will provide instructional services of statewide benefit that cannot be provided by a charter school operating in only one school district.” The statewide benefit charter and a similar provision allowing county offices of education to issue countywide benefit charters were to be the exceptions. The Legislature otherwise intended school districts to be the primary approvers and overseers of charters operating within their borders.
The quality or effectiveness of Aspire’s schools wasn’t at issue. The state’s largest charter school organization, with 34 schools serving mostly low-income minority students, has had consistently high state test scores and rates of graduation of college-ready students. Aspire was recognized by a McKinsey & Company study among the 20 most improved school systems worldwide. But two courts – a State Court of Appeals panel in a unanimous 2011 decision and the Alameda County Superior Court judge in a subsequent ruling last year ­– said that the State Board’s approval did not meet the high threshold required by state law.
Aspire had argued that its distinct statewide benefits were the ability to issue cost-efficient school construction bonds enabling Aspire to expand its operations and a teacher credentialing program and residency program, producing top-notch new teachers. Both benefits were made cost-efficient and effective through a statewide permit that avoided the expense, length of time and conditions that individual districts could impose. But the courts ruled that potential cost savings didn’t constitute a statewide benefit, and there wasn’t enough evidence to show that Aspire couldn’t achieve what it wanted through local approvals.
The State Board also has granted two other statewide benefit charters. One is to High Tech High, a San Diego-based charter management organization that has a project-based approach to learning and also runs its own graduate school of education; it has opened five schools with two to go, under the state permit. The other is Magnolia Public Schools, a math- and science-focused organization, for 10 schools, although it has opened only two under the statewide approval, according to its website.
The California School Boards Association has not sued the State Board for the other two approvals. However, Judy Cias, chief counsel for the State Board, acknowledged that the Aspire decisions may have had a chilling effect. No other applications for a statewide benefit charter are pending, and Cias said she knew of no others in the works. The rulings “might make other statewide benefit applicants uncertain about moving forward,” she said.

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