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Charter schools — and their students — have a right to defend themselves from biased attacks
Today’s Fresh Start v. Los Angeles County Office of Education
Contact: Joshua P. Thompson
Status: Amicus brief filed in the California Supreme Court on March 9, 2012. Oral argument on the merits scheduled for May 30, 2013.
May a county education board close down a charter school without an evidentiary hearing presided over by a neutral officer?
As amicus in support of the Fresh Start Charter School in Los Angeles County, PLF will argue that charter schools have a due process right to a fair hearing — with both sides allowed to present evidence — when a school’s charter is on the line. The charter is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program goals, methods of measuring success, and the types of students who will be served. Revocation can cause serious disruption in the lives of the students, and — if unjustified, and particularly if motivated by an ideological or political animus against charter schools — can deal a blow to the cause of educational reform and educational excellence. So, the process for considering challenges to a school’s charter must be unimpeachably fair.
The facts underlying this case are as follows: Today’s Fresh Start is a countywide K-8 charter school serving economically underprivileged students with five campuses throughout South Los Angeles. It has an enrollment of 558 students with a diverse population. It was chartered in 2003, and its charter was renewed for an additional five-year term in 2005 by the Los Angeles County Board of Education.
In June, 2007, the Los Angles County Office of Education (County Board), a regional education agency under the leadership of the Los Angeles County Board of Education, notified Fresh Start that it would be investigating concerns about the school raised in four main areas: Rights of students, parents, and employees; student attendance; professional development; and state testing protocol. Although the parties attempted to work through their concerns, these efforts failed. The decision whether to revoke the charter of Fresh Start was presented to the Los Angeles County Board of Education at two meetings in October, 2007.
At the public meetings before the County Board, Fresh Start objected to the proceedings based on its belief that the County Board was not a neutral entity, but was overruled. The public meetings continued and Fresh Start was allowed to respond to the County Office of Education’s allegations, and to argue why revocation was improper. A number of Fresh Start officials, students, and teachers spoke in front of the County Board in support of the school, rebutting the allegations leveled against the school. However, no formal introduction of evidence was allowed and the County Office of Education formally presented no evidence in support of revocation. Nevertheless, in December, 2007, the County Board revoked Fresh Start’s charter.
Fresh Start then appealed to the State Board of Education. Again, Fresh Start was not allowed to introduce evidence to the State Board. Because the State Board split 4-4, the revocation decision was upheld.
Fresh Start filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus in the superior court arguing: (1) the County Office of Education failed to provide Fresh Start with proper notice and an opportunity to cure; (2) Fresh Start was deprived of due process before revocation because neither the County Office of Education nor the County Board were impartial decision makers; and (3) the County Office of Education failed to introduce any evidence at the revocation hearing to support revocation. The trial court agreed that Fresh Start did not receive a hearing before a neutral decision maker and that its due process rights were violated. On appeal, the court reversed.
The supreme court granted review only on the issue of whether due process requires a charter school the opportunity to present evidence before a neutral decision-maker.
It is undisputed that Fresh Start has a property interest in its charter. Accordingly, the issue centers on whether the hearing provided by the County Board (and the subsequent appeal to the State Board), afforded Fresh Start sufficient procedural due process before its charter was revoked.
Fresh Start argues that its due process rights were violated for three main reasons. First, due process requires that the property interest holder be afforded the opportunity to formally introduce evidence before the decision maker. Second, because the County Office of Education and the County Board both compete with Fresh Start for state funds, the Board meeting was in front of a biased decision maker with pecuniary interest in the hearing. Third, and relatedly, Fresh Start notes that numerous members of the County Office of Education and the County Board of Education have overlapping functions. Accordingly, the County Board is heavily biased towards the County Office of Education, and Fresh Start was never given a fair and impartial hearing in front of a neutral decision maker.