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State Supreme Court: LAUSD must recalculate charter classroom needs

A state Supreme Court ruling favors charter schools in its dispute with Los Angeles Unified School District over sharing campus space.
A state Supreme Court ruling clarifies how space for charter schools must be determined, but Los Angeles Unified may not be turning over more real estate to charters just yet.

The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday the Los Angeles Unified School District is inappropriately calculating space for charter schools, but the district may not be turning over more space to charters just yet.

The ruling is the latest development in a long-standing feud over how much space charters are granted on stand-alone campuses or those shared with a district school. 

In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 39 requiring school districts to provide "reasonably equivalent" facilities to charter students, but the charter advocates disputed the method for determining the size of their designated spaces and charged the district was short-changing their students.

"For more than a decade, the [State Board of Education's] regulations and the underlying mandate of Proposition 39 have been the subject of considerable litigation," wrote Justice Goodwin Liu.

LAUSD used district-wide class size averages to determine the number of classrooms a charter school would need. The Supreme Court ordered the district to instead base the need on class size averages for the neighboring district schools where the charter is competing for students.

"This is because in large school districts the conditions in schools may vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood," Justice Liu wrote.

When the California Charter Schools Association sued LAUSD, it alleged the district was not considering all available space in divvying-up campuses and classrooms, leaving the charters cramped in limited areas.

In 2012, a trial court sided with the charter schools, but LAUSD won on appeal. The California Supreme Court then granted a review in 2013. 

David Huff, the attorney representing LAUSD, argued the district's calculations were equitable. He provided the court examples where charter class sizes mirrored that of neighboring schools. If district schools end up with more space, it's because they offer programs outside K-12, including preschool and adult education, Huff said.

Using rooms for those programs in the calculation would tip the scales in favor of charters, he argued.

"It would have resulted in a two-tiered structure of a public school system with charter school students  simply getting more classroom space than a district school kids. L.A. Unified thought that was unfair, and that’s why this challenge was taken all the way to the Supreme Court,” Huff said after the ruling.

The court agreed with LAUSD that classrooms provided for adult education or preschool can be excluded from calculating K-12 class-size average, but it declined to clarify if other school spaces, such as supply rooms, should be used.

So while the ruling clarifies how space for charters must be calculated, final numbers from the districts will determine whether charters get any extra real estate or lose ground.

Still, the California Charter Schools Association declared victory in the case.

The group said in a release the court reaffirmed the association's position that the district's methodology was "not legal or fair, and potentially denied classrooms to charter public school students."

Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the association, stated: "We're greatly encouraged that the California Supreme Court validated the notion that public school facilities should be shared fairly with all kids."​

This story has been updated.