By Harrison Sheppard

MEDIANEWS SACRAMENTO BUREAU

SACRAMENTO -- Some charter school operators are up in arms about a pending state bill they say will limit the ability of new charters to open across the state.

The legislation restricts the authority of the state Board of Education to approve new charter schools, instead ensuring that power rests primarily with local school boards.

The effect, charter advocates fear, is that they will have little recourse in districts where the local school board is hostile to the entire concept of charters, regardless of the merits of a particular application.

But they are particularly incensed by what they say is a tricky political maneuver by lawmakers, who included $18 million in the bill to fund facilities grants for charter schools in low-income areas. That means if charter school advocates who oppose the policy change are successful in defeating the bill, they end up cutting their own funding.

A group of several hundred charter school parents, staff members and supporters are planning to protest outside Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez's Los Angeles office today.

"This is just a sneak move," said Mike Piscal, founder and CEO of Inner City Education Foundation, which runs nine charter schools in South Los Angeles. "It's a move designed in that part of the bill to punish the highest-performing charter management organizations -- the highest-performing organizations that have been serving the poor."

The legislation, Senate Bill 92, does two things.

It provides $18 million in funding for grants to charter schools in low-income areas to help with facilities costs, such as lease payments.

In the current year, the state provided $9 million to that fund.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger originally proposed to boost that amount to $43 million to accommodate the expanding charter school movement. Legislative staffers, however, said that money was designed to apply to two fiscal years.

Second, the bill limits the authority of the state Board of Education to approve new charters, instead reserving that power nearly exclusively to local school boards.

Under current law, local school boards have the primary responsibility for charters, but the state board can approve "statewide benefit charters" without local approval under certain conditions, such as a determination that the schools provide an overall statewide benefit and draw from a student body in more than one district.

But some legislators are concerned that charter operators are exploiting that loophole, allowing them to go to the state board to avoid dealing with local boards that are hostile to the concept of charter schools.

"I believe firmly the way charter schools are approved is through local districts," said Nunez, D-Los Angeles.

"I don't have a problem with charter schools -- I support them. But I don't like local governments to be circumvented," he said.

Right now, there are only two charter school operators that have been approved for statewide benefit charters. But organizations such as the California School Boards Association, the California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators say that in one of those cases, the Board of Education overstepped its authority.

Earlier this year, the three groups demanded the board rescind a decision it made approving an application by Aspire Public Schools, saying it was not following the strict requirements of the law for a statewide benefit charter.

"In summary, the only statewide benefit is to Aspire," the groups wrote. "Nothing in the petition reveals a 'statewide benefit' defined by the Board's own regulations. This is simply an effort to avoid the 'bother' of having to apply to local school districts for approval and endure monitoring by local officials."

Roger Magyar, executive director of the state board, said the board has been careful to limit how many statewide benefit charters it approves, and it only allows those organizations to start two new schools per year.

"So it's not as though the statewide benefit charters are going to overrun the country," Magyar said. "You still have all these charters that go to a local school district or a county board of education to be chartered."

Gregory McNair, head of Los Angeles Unified's charter school division, said he doesn't expect the bill to impact the district significantly. The district already has 103 charter schools operating and will have about 118 by next year. The state board, he says, only grants statewide benefit charters to a limited number of schools.

"If there's a to-do about the bill, it's probably a little bit overblown," he said. "First of all, the state board does not really charter many schools. They only have a handful. Second, the qualifications for being a statewide charter are very high."

Charter operators said going to the state board simply allows them to avoid having to deal with multiple local bureaucracies. For example, if an operator wants to operate six charter schools in six different school districts that operate with the same educational model, they would go through a single application process with the state, rather than six individual applications with school districts that will each impose their own requirements.

"It's not about whether local districts are willing to approve charters," said Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Association and a former LAUSD board member. "It's about making sure you can quickly replicate high-quality schools according to a consistent model."