Charter challenges appellate ruling to state Supreme Court
Northern California charter school has turned to the state’s highest court to review and potentially reverse an appellate court ruling that calls into question the legality of hundreds of satellite charter campuses.
California’s charter school industry suffered a major blow in October when a state appellate court ruled that a charter school cannot operate mini-campuses outside its home district in its resident county. Growth in satellite charters has stirred turf wars and costly litigation locally and throughout San Diego County and state.
Tens of thousands of California students attend satellite charter schools that operate in shopping malls, office parks and other unlikely campus venues within boundaries of school districts that did not authorize them. The appellate court decision puts at stake the education of students and millions of dollars in revenue generated by the charters for privately run organizations.
The Shasta Secondary Home School (now Shasta Charter Academy) filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court on Tuesday.
“This case involves an important question of law because the Court of Appeal’s decision threatens harm to thousands of public school children that have not been successful in traditional classroom settings and calls into question the very statutory foundations upon which nonclassroom-based charter school education is based,” attorneys wrote in the 25-page petition.
The request for review is part of an effort to get reversed the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s Oct. 17 decision that overturns a lower court ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Anderson Union High School District near Redding claiming the Shasta charter illegally opened a satellite campus in its jurisdiction.
“The appellate court decision was a surprise,” said Julie Umansky , vice president of legal advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association. “It effects thousands of students. To disrupt their education — and ignore a whole body of law — is something that concerns us.”
The appellate ruling has been in effect since November 16, and reverses the lower court decision, which sided with the charter that was authorized by the nearby Shasta Union High School District. The lower court said it was legal for a charter to operate a resource center, as such schools are officially called, in the neighboring Anderson district to give its independent-study students who live there a chance to use computers, receive tutoring and work on assignments in a classroom setting.
Under the State Education Code, independent-study charters are allowed to operate satellite campuses in their home district and in neighboring counties. However, the law is largely moot about whether a charter can operate satellite centers outside their home district and within their county.
Megan Macy, a lead attorney representing the Anderson district, said the case is about the strict reading of statutes in the California Charter Schools Act.
Even so, she said the case has raised issues about how districts can provide oversight of schools in their boundaries, and is being closely watched by charter school advocates and critics nationwide.
“There is a significant interest on the part of school districts to make sure there is accountability. That is what is central to this case,” Macy said. “Many of these charter schools offer great programs that education students very effectively, but there are others that are likely in it to make money.”
The San Diego Unified, Grossmont and Sweetwater Union High School districts have sued the Julian Union Elementary School District and its Julian Charter School over resource centers that have cost those districts students and state attendance funds. The districts have said they are unable ensure academic or financial oversight at the storefront centers they did not authorize.
“We believe the Court of Appeal decision in the Anderson case was very well reasoned and should be upheld, however It remains to be see whether the Supreme Court will even take up review of the case,” said Andra Donovan, San Diego Unified’s chief attorney. “In either case, a final decision in the Anderson case will have a significant impact on the outcome of all litigation currently pending on this issue.”
The Anderson school district will have a chance to respond to the review request, as will interested parties on both sides, in the coming weeks and months before the justices decide whether to review the decision.
Without a reversal from the state’s highest court, charters have limited options for their growing web of resource centers.
Among the options: petitioning the resident school district, county board of education, or the State Board of Education to approve a charter that essentially converts a resource center into a full-fledged charter school. The authorizing agency would gain oversight of the charter and collect up to 3 percent of the charter’s revenue for that service.
Some charters could maintain their satellite schools with a reorganization. Charter organizations with schools in multiple counties could redistribute management of their campuses as charters are allowed to operate storefront centers in adjacent counties under the law. The San Diego-based Altus Institute operates several charters — including Audeo, Audeo II, and the Charter School of San Diego — and their resource centers in several counties.
New legislation could allow charters to continue the practice of operating resource centers outside their authorizing districts within their county.
Of California’s roughly 1,200 charter schools, more than 275 are “non-classroom based” programs — including 43 in San Diego County.
The petition filed with the state Supreme Court states that more than 63 percent of students enrolled in satellite charters are poor and more than 46 percent are Latino or African American. The mini campuses employ roughly 2,000 employees, most of whom are mostly teachers, attorneys said.
Charters are publicly funded schools that are independently operated and free of state and local education rules in exchange for a promise to raise student achievement with innovative means.
The court case involves non-classroom-based charters, which offer a hybrid education that typically combines independent-study with classroom instruction. In 2008, 72,459 California students attended such schools, a figure that nearly doubled to 141,752 last year.
Nearly 40,000 students in California are estimated to be attending satellite campuses affected by the lawsuit.
About 20 percent of San Diego Unified students have transferred to charters, with the district projecting that figure to reach 30 percent in a decade — largely due to growth of independent-study charters.
San Diego Unified and other districts have expanded online programs to compete with charters and make use of technology that makes it easier to supplement classroom instruction with teacher-guided independent-study programs.
Dozens of far-flung charters and resource centers have been authorized by East County districts, including some that that were forged mostly for the money.
Steve Van Zant was convicted of a felony violation of the Political Reform Act earlier this year for abusing his position as superintendent of the Mountain Empire Union School District.
Under his leadership, Mountain Empire approved 13 charters (all but one were non-classroom-based) to operate in other districts between 2008 and 2013, with some of them going on to hire his EdHive charter consulting business. In addition, he personally received stipends equivalent to 5 percent of the district’s charter revenue under his employment contract negotiated with the school board.