Could fragile peace between political rivals ultimately lead to changes in California's charter school oversight?

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The California Charter School Association and the state's teachers unions may deeply disagree on a lot of issues, but they at least agree on this: charter schools ought to be subject to the state's open records law, just like any other public school.

That agreement-in-principle forms the basic framework of two bills that have surfaced recently in Sacramento, raising the possibility that California lawmakers might enact changes to the state's structure for charter school governance and oversight this session.

Both bills formally apply a trio of open government laws — the California Public Records Act; the Political Reform Act, which deals with ethics and conflict-of-interest policies; and the state's open meetings laws — to the handful of charter schools that don't follow them already.

But from there, the proposals diverge, and so do the teachers unions and the charter association.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill the teachers union supports, AB 1478, said he's hoping to find common ground between his proposal and the Senate legislation the charter association supports.

But a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association also made clear the state's largest teachers union had deep reservations with the charter association-backed bill, SB 806.

Similarly, while the California Charter Schools Association's Carlos Marquez said his side had made progress with Jones-Sawyer, he's cautious in assessing the chances that the two sides ultimately reach a compromise.

"We will take him at his word that he is open to amendments," said Marquez, the charter association's senior vice president of government affairs. "Ultimately, CTA will have to decide whether they are supportive of those amendments or if they want to walk away."

If the recent past is any indication, it's conceivable that there are still enough votes in the legislature to approve a charter oversight package of some kind. A bill nearly identical to Jones-Sawyer's AB 1478 passed both chambers last year, but Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, citing many objections the charter association had raised.

"We do think if both [bills] go through, if both pass, we know which one is going to get signed," Marquez said. "They [teachers union leaders] know which one is going to get signed."

The major sticking point has been "Government Code 1090," the state law preventing public officials from "self-dealing" — that is, from having a financial stake in any contracts or deals involving the government entity for which they work.

California Teachers Association officials prefer AB 1478 because it clarifies these self-dealing provisions apply to all charter schools. They cite an opinion from the state's Legislative Counsel Bureau concluding Government Code 1090 already applies to charter schools. (The charter association disputes this finding.)

"We hope that providing some clarity in the law will prevent the abuse of tax dollars," wrote CTA spokeswoman Claudia Briggs in a statement.

(In 2013, for instance, an L.A. judge sentenced the founders of Ivy Academia Charter Schools to four years in prison after a jury ruled they siphoned public funds from the school for their personal gain.)

But the governor ultimately vetoed the bill, Marquez and Jones-Sawyer said, because he felt broadly applying the self-dealing provisions to charter schools would also prevent essentially innocuous transactions — like a member of the charter school's board who wants to donate land to the school or to help finance the school's purchase of a building.

Jones-Sawyer said he's open to discussing this concern with the governor's office and with backers of the charter-backed SB 806. At a recent press conference in North Hollywood, he even raised the possibility the bills might be amended to look like one-another.

“They may be identical or very similar," he said. "I’m hoping we’re able to work all that through in addition to working with the governor’s office.”

Marquez estimated that less than half of California's 1,200 charter schools already abide by Government Code 1090, either voluntarily or as a condition of receiving their charter. He said applying the self-dealing provisions to some schools might be necessary — but that applying them broadly would do more harm than good.

The bill the charter association prefers, SB 806, contains more nuanced self-dealing provisions. It also would prevent for-profit entities from holding a controlling a charter school's board of directors or from employing any more than half of a school's full-time teaching staff.

These provisions would end charter governance arrangements like the one between K12, Inc., and the California Virtual Academies that drew scrutiny from the state Attorney General's office.

The CTA's Briggs cast the charter association's support for the proposal as disingenuous. She said the charter association opposed legislation last year that would've gone further in banning for-profit entities' involvement in charter schools. Marquez said it would've gone so far that it would've prevented charter schools from contracting with almost any outside for-profit vendor, as traditional public school districts do all the time.

The question is whether these broader disagreements between the charter association and the teachers union — on issues like Government Code 1090, on restrictions for for-profit entities, or on any of the plethora of other issues where the two sides vehemently disagree — will smother any possibility of compromise between the two sides about applying that trio of open government laws to charter schools.

AB 1478 is currently in the Assembly Education Committee. SB 806 is currently in the Senate Rules Committee.

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