National Charter Schools Week Special: A Conversation With AB 544 Author Ted Lempert

May 8, 2012

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The California Charter Schools Act was ratified in California in 1992. Senator Gary Hart authored bill SB 1448, and Governor Pete Wilson signed it, making California the second state in the nation to allow charter public schools. The intent of SB 1448 was to "provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure."

However, SB 1448 limited the number of charter schools to 100, with no more than 10 per school district. Charter supporters--including Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey--found little room for growth over the next five years, and in 1998, they sought to get an initiative placed on the ballot to allow for charter expansion.

Enter Assembly Bill 544. Former Assemblymember Ted Lempert saw an opportunity to override the initiative process, and fix the issues limiting charter school growth through the Legislature. Lempert represented the San Carlos district--which houses the first charter to open in California--and he knew expansion was beneficial for communities across the state.

The bill was passed and signed by Gov. Wilson at the San Carlos Learning Center in 1998. AB 544 strengthened both the independence and accountability of charter schools, removed the cap, and added teacher credentialing, among other things.

To commemorate National Charter Schools Week, CCSA spoke with former Assemblymember Ted Lempert, currently President of Children Now, to discuss charter schools and the role AB 544 played in the history of the charter movement in California.

You wrote the charter school expansion bill, AB 544, almost 15 years ago. What compelled you to take it on as an issue?

A few things. I live in San Carlos, the home of the California charter school movement, and I was very familiar with charters as a community member. I was in the State Assembly when Senator Hart's Charter Schools Act bill was introduced, and I had been a big supporter from the very beginning. To me, the charter movement was, and is, about choice, and what charters do for all of us in the community.

This was a textbook example, in my opinion, of a proposed initiative pushing legislation, which doesn't happen often, but it came about because of the work of Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey, and other charter supporters, who were frustrated about the cap on charters, and school boards denying charters.

As a parent and policymaker, I felt like something needed to change, or it would've left the charter movement dead in its tracks.

What was your original vision for the charter school expansion, and how does that compare to where we are today?

My goal was to ensure that charter schools had all the rights to be able to grow and end the unfairness in the authorizing process, so that charters would be treated fairly. It's impressive to see how charters have grown across the state--which wouldn't have happened without increasing the cap--so that worked. But there continues to be major challenges with some authorizers, and especially with funding.

One of the early criticisms of your bill was that it didn't provide clarity on funding for charters. The Legislative Analyst's Office recently released a report stating that charters are systematically underfunded in California, in some cases by more than $1,000 per student. What are your thoughts on this?

The charter school movement is very strong in California, and there is no doubt that if the funding climate was better for all public schools, it would be even stronger. No question, one of the goals of AB 544 was to ensure fairness for charters, including in the way they are funded, but there continues to be this perception that charters have a lot of extra advantages, which is not the case, especially if you look at what the LAO is reporting. There continue to be challenges.

Do you think AB 544 would pass in today's Legislature?

I would hope so. A lot of the credit for the approval of the bill has to go to Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey, because of how they brought the issue to light, and how they organized to make things happen. Back then, we also had a less polarized Legislative environment. I remember having a call with Antonio Villaraigosa, who was the Speaker of the Assembly, and John Burton, the Senate Pro Tem, and while they had previously been reluctant to engage in the issue, they came together as leaders to forge a compromise with the education coalition through good, old-fashion "legislating," and get things done. Today, we see that Villaraigosa as Mayor of Los Angeles has become a strong supporter of education reform and a charter champion.

I would like to think that the bill would pass, but it probably would be more challenging.

Where do you see charter schools in another 20 years?

What I would like to see in the next 20 years is every student in California graduating from high school, and having the choice, and access, to a quality education. To get there, we're going to need a strong charter sector to provide and push the rest of the public school system.

There's a tremendous amount of support from numerous sectors across the state, like business, parents, communities, etc., to fund our schools appropriately. We know what the challenges are in public education, so we need to focus on the reasons for not addressing them. That's one of the focuses of Children Now, actually. The solution is well within our reach, it is simpler to solve than world hunger. We need to bring folks together, and put reality behind rhetoric. It is time.

More Information

In addition to SB 1448 (1992) and AB 544 (1998), here are some Legislative highlights over the past 20 years for California charter schools:

  • AB 1115 (Strom-Martin) in 1999 established the charter school block grant funding model
  • SB 740 (O'Connell) in 2001 established the facility grant program and the funding determination process for "non-classroom-based" charter schools
  • Proposition 39 in November 2000 established access to reasonably equivalent district facilities for charter school
  • AB 1994 (Reyes) in 2002 established geographic restrictions and statewide benefit charters at the State Board of Education
  • AB 1137 (Reyes) in 2003 established minimum academic criteria for renewals

To see which bills and issues are impacting charter schools in California, and how you can get involved, visit the At the Capitol section of our website.

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