August 8, 2008

Charter Schools Eye Windfall Bill

By George B. Sanchez

State funding to build new charter schools would increase sixfold in four years -- to more than $100 million -- under a clause tucked into a larger bill that has won strong support from traditional charter-school opponents.

The influx of cash would significantly boost the growing charter- school movement in California as proponents have aggressively lobbied for more funding and space amid growing demand for the schools.

The provision for charter funds was added to legislation to provide more funding for multitrack year-round schools. An earlier version of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who pushed for the plan to instead include more charter funding.

So bill author Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, added as much as $115 million in state funding to build new charters.

And that means United Teachers Los Angeles, which has fought against charters, now finds itself a supporter of giving them more funding because it favors the bill's other goals.

"Am I happy the money is going to charters? No, not at all, but sometimes if you're going to help your kids, you have to make a compromise here and there," said UTLA president A.J. Duffy.

"It's not a huge amount going to charters."

Duffy said Senate Bill 658 is a good bill that allows funding for year- round schools to continue even as new seats are built to lessen the need for year-round schools.

Under current state policy, districts that move students out of year-round schools, dipping year-round enrollment to less than 40 percent of overall enrollment, must choose between receiving either new construction funds or year-round operating funds.

But this bill extends access to both funds for some districts for at least another four years, before ending the funding altogether.

As the funding for year-round schools ends, the money will now be shifted to charter-school construction.

"It's a win-win all around," said Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Association. "It's a good example of how we can do the right things for kids if we all work together."

The funding for charters would come from annual cuts of 20 percent, beginning in 2008-09 and running for the next four years, from the state's Year-Round School Grant.

Construction fund

The money cut from the grant would be funneled into the Charter School Facilities Grant, currently an $18 million construction fund for charter schools with at least 70 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-cost meals.

When Schwarzenegger vetoed SB 121 in October, he said he would reconsider if it redirected year-round school funds to charters.

"Enhancing the ability of charter schools to secure adequate facilities will assist them in serving their unmet demand and, at the same time, will also help address the overcrowding problem this bill attempts to address," Schwarzenegger wrote.

The LAUSD sponsored SB658. The Advancement Project and school districts in Los Banos, Rialto and Modesto also filed letters in support.

On Friday, LAUSD Senior Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines wrote a letter to Schwarzenegger, thanking him for supporting the bill, with copies sent to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Young, former Mayor Richard Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad. Cortines said he supports the bill because it serves LAUSD students, whether in charter or traditional schools.

"This would greatly increase the amount of funding for charter- school facilities," Young said.

In the past, she explained, charter programs applied to the state Department of Education to be partially reimbursed for a school site lease.

Charters can be reimbursed up to $750 per student. In Los Angeles, the per-pupil cost of a lease is about $1,500, Young said, but schools generally don't receive more than $500.

Funding or operations?

The LAUSD cannot continue its construction program if it must chose between funding for construction or operating year-round schools, according to a letter of support from LAUSD Sacramento lobbyist Santiago Jackson.

Four school districts, including the LAUSD, receive a total of $97 million from the fund for year-round schools, according to a bill analysis.

Currently, if 40 percent or less of a student body is within a year-round school, the district must choose between either construction funds or year-round funds. The bill would allow districts, like the LAUSD, to apply for both year-round funding and new construction funds.

The LAUSD is expected to fall below the 40 percent threshold by the end of 2008, according to Jackson.

Romero, the Senate majority leader and a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, is trying to get the bill passed under an urgency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately, rather than waiting until Jan. 1. Her first effort fell a single vote short, but she plans to submit it for another vote soon.

Only Assembly members Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon, and Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, voted against it, while some 24 members were absent for the vote.

Anderson said there were questions about amendments to the bill and slim Republican support. Ultimately, he said, his vote came down to immediate budget concerns.

"With the state facing massive structural debt, this would make it worse," Anderson said. "I'd be willing to take a look at it again."

The bill has until Aug. 31 to pass or it will expire.

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