Two Exciting Court Decisions Support School Districts Partnering with Charters in Reform

October 26, 2011

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"The District could not sit by and do nothing"

Two recent favorable court decisions signal groundbreaking new opportunities for California's charter schools and the school districts that partner with them to enact local reform. Since the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board passed the innovative and unprecedented Public School Choice reform initiative in 2009, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has constantly challenged those reform efforts in court. Recent decisions support the district in its efforts, with the trial court concluding in one case that the school district could not "sit by and do nothing."

LAUSD's innovative education reform efforts serve as a model to the rest of the state. They demonstrate how school districts and the charter community can work hand in hand toward a common goal--making sure every student in the state has access to a high-quality public education.

The LAUSD board passed Public School Choice to both reform the operation of new schools and to turn around the lowest performing schools in the district. PSC allows non-district school operators--like charter schools, teacher teams, and community groups--the opportunity to run these schools. About a dozen new schools are now being run by charter schools through this process.

The first lawsuit filed by UTLA challenged the district in awarding new school sites to charter operators under Public School Choice. The second focuses on LAUSD's efforts to turn around low-performing schools.

Alfaro, UTLA v. LAUSD

On September 16, 2011, in Alfaro, UTLA v. LAUSD, the California Court of Appeals (Second District) issued an unpublished decision finding that the Charter Schools Act allowed LAUSD to award several of its newly built school sites to charter school operators for the 2010-11 school year, without the charter schools having to obtain signatures of school district teachers.

The Alfaro, UTLA v. LAUSD lawsuit was filed by UTLA, along with a few of its teachers. The basis for the challenge was that awarding those new campuses constituted a "partial conversion" of a district school to a charter school. Accordingly, UTLA argued the award triggered a California Education Code requirement that the charter schools must obtain the signatures of 50% of the on-site school district teachers. They argued that one of the purposes of building the new sites was to relieve overcrowding, so the relieved schools should be considered partially converted.

The appellate court rejected UTLA's argument. The court majority found that because the new school sites were not "existing" district schools, no conversion took place, and teacher signatures were not required.

United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) v. LAUSD

On September 19, 2011, a Los Angeles trial court, in another lawsuit brought by UTLA, ruled that school district teacher signatures also were not required for Green Dot's charter schools that started operations this school year at the former campuses of LAUSD's chronically low-performing Clay Middle School and Jordan High School.

LAUSD has many successful public schools. However, Clay and Jordan were both consistently within the bottom 10% of schools in California. In addition, both were in federal Program Improvement status for years with no improvement. Recognizing the dire situation at Clay and Jordan, the LAUSD Superintendent at the time was quoted as saying, "This is an emergency situation that requires immediate action... The time for excuses has expired. The time for action and progress is long overdue." Ultimately LAUSD awarded Green Dot the charter to operate a school at the former Clay campus as part of its innovative Public School Choice program, and at Jordan as a reconstitution authorized by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Yet again UTLA challenged these education reform efforts in court. On September 19, the trial court judge denied UTLA's claim that Green Dot's "start-up" charters were invalid because the schools are actually conversions that did not meet the teacher signature requirement. The court upheld the school district's actions under the Charter School Act, NCLB and several California laws intended to make the state eligible for the federal Race to the Top competition. The trial court noted that these laws were not "promulgated with a purpose of protecting teacher rights," and that the school district cannot "sit by and do nothing." UTLA has already announced its intent to appeal the decision.

CCSA's Charter Schools Legal Defense Fund (LDF) has been actively monitoring these cases and supporting the efforts of attorneys working on these matters. We will continue to keep you updated on important court cases affecting charter schools in California.

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