Gov. Brown emerges as new champion for charter schools

A year ago, leaders of California's charter school movement were bracing for what appeared to be their most trying political challenge in decades.

What a difference a year makes.

Under the Schwarzenegger administration, charters enjoyed both growth and leadership, and there was true anxiety when Democrat Jerry Brown took over, especially since he was elected with the strong backing of the education establishment.

By spring some of those worries turned to distress as Brown assembled a leadership team that included appointment of a legislative advocate from the California Teachers Association to the powerful state board of education.

Restrictive legislation also was advancing quickly and there were growing doubts about how charters would fare in the upcoming budget debate without a strong advocate in any Capitol leadership positions.

As things turned out, charters had nothing to worry about - Gov. Brown has proven to be at least as supportive as Schwarzenegger - if not more so.

Gov. Brown has been a terrific supporter of charter schools - there's no doubt about that," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association.

"He has taken a number of strong stands for us in last year's legislative cycle," Wallace said. "He's appointed state board members that have also proved strong and he's brought forward a budget this year that has within it a number of provisions that will allow charters to take on their historic funding inequities.

"You add those pieces up and you find that Gov. Brown has proved a real champion for charter schools," Wallace added.

With a political career that spans most of the last half-century, Brown returned to the governor's office in 2011 with a surprisingly short record when it came to one of the most divisive political battles in modern education.

As mayor of Oakland, he had helped establish charter schools and continued to be active in their operation - but a close review of his speeches and campaign literature gave little evidence the free-thinking Brown was decidedly in one camp or the other.

But shortly after the state budget agreement was struck in June - in which charters were treated at least as well as regular public schools - there were growing signs where Brown's sentiments laid. Soon, legislation that would cap the number of charters that could be established in California began to lose momentum, as did bills aimed at helping unions organize charter employees.

Brown's appointees to the state board also were quick to affirm the administration's position, with a May vote confirming a statewide benefit charter for Aspire Public Schools despite heavy opposition from the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association.

Later, a landmark package aimed at imposing new performance and fiscal accountability on charters - legislation that actually had bipartisan support as well as the endorsement of the Charter Schools Association - was sidelined by the governor. Capitol sources indicated Brown signaled his clear opposition to any legislation with new constraints on charter flexibility.

The concerted actions came as a pleasant surprise to even the most ardent charter advocates.

"My sense is that a lot of people had pigeon-holed him as a tool of one constituency or another, but he's shown to be very much his own man," said Eric Premack, director of the Charter Schools Development Center, consulting group that helped Brown draft plans for two charters while he was mayor of Oakland.

Looking forward, the charter school association - perhaps not surprisingly - endorsed Gov. Brown's tax measure, which he wants to qualify for the November election. Charters joined the teachers association in backing the governor's plan - a significant move because some experts believe either of the two other tax plans being offered for the fall actually would generate more money for public schools.

Not so, said Wallace, noting the governor's budget plan for next year - contingent on passage of his tax measure - would be of great benefit to charters.

In particular, the governor's plan to restructure school spending with a weighted student formula would help "charters achieve funding equity over a several year period," said Wallace.