A superior court judge has invalidated the State Board of Education's oversight of one of the state's biggest charter school companies, giving six schools until June 2013 to gain approval from local school districts or be forced to close.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jo-Lynne Lee found that the board improperly awarded Aspire Public Schools rights to bypass local district oversight and open schools anywhere in California, without evaluating whether the company met the state's requirements.
Lee's ruling represents a victory for the California Teachers Association, California School Boards Association and Association of California School Administrators, which sued the education board in 2007.
State law says charters can be allowed to open schools anywhere in California if they can prove their services are a "statewide benefit" that cannot be provided by a charter school overseen by a local district. But in their lawsuit, the school groups claimed the state education board awarded Aspire operating rights without assessing whether a benefit existed.
In 2010, an appeals court agreed and sent the case back to Alameda County for a final ruling. Lee published her 29-page order [PDF] last month. The state education board also must revamp its rules on state charters, according to the ruling.
Based in Oakland, Aspire is one of the most prominent charter school management organizations in the nation and serves nearly 12,000 students at 34 schools in California.
Six Aspire campuses with about 1,900 students were overseen by the state education board and now will have to reapply to local school officials. They are Aspire Alexander Twilight College Preparatory Academy and Aspire Alexander Twilight Secondary Academy in Sacramento, Aspire APEX Academy and Aspire Port City Academy in Stockton, and Aspire Junior Collegiate Academy and Aspire Titan Academy in Huntington Park.
Under the ruling, the schools have until June 24, 2013, to gain reapproval or close.
Aspire CEO James Willcox said he is confident Aspire's applications will be approved by local school boards. Meanwhile, Willcox said the organization might decide to appeal the judge's decision.
"We are committed to serving all of our students and families who count on Aspire and want to calm any uncertainty that this decision may cause," Willcox said. "As we discussed on our recent conference call, we have applied for charters or renewals nearly 60 times since our founding, with positive results in all cases. We are hopeful that the three school districts involved will recognize the success we have had for students from their communities."
In a statement, Karen Stapf-Walters, interim executive director of the school administrators association, said the organization was satisfied with the court's decision.
“We’re pleased by the judge’s decision to ensure the State Board adopts the required procedural rules so only those charters that truly meet the test of statewide benefit status are considered in the future,” Stapf-Walters said. "It is important that all public schools and students are treated equitably.”
The court ruling also has implications on Wall Street. Last month, Fitch Ratings downgraded and placed Aspire's bonds on "negative outlook" status, concluding that the organization hadn't fully shared the implications of the lawsuit with investors. Under statewide operating status, Aspire was able to successfully acquire $93.3 million in bond sales.
The assessment from the rating agency could scare off potential Aspire bond investors and result in higher interest rates for the company.
The organization is making strides nevertheless – outside of California. Six states have recruited Aspire to turn around underperforming schools, Willcox told Education Week recently. The Tennessee Achievement School District, a state entity, hired Aspire last month to take over schools in Memphis.
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