Southern California charter schools challenge State Board’s denial in court

On Nov. 1, 2023, Vista Charter Public Schools (Vista) filed a lawsuit against the State Board of Education (SBE) challenging its decision to affirm the denial of its charter petition by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the Los Angeles County Board of Education (LACBOE). The lawsuit highlights the debate taking place in California about the extent of local control that may be exercised by school boards and communities when considering charter school petitions.

Connection to previous litigation by Napa Valley USD and CSBA’s ELA

Another lawsuit involving a charter school petition raised similar questions last year when Napa Valley USD and CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance (ELA) challenged the SBE’s determination that there was an abuse of discretion by the governing boards of Napa Valley USD and the Napa County Office of Education in denying a petition for the Mayacamas Charter School. Both the Napa Valley USD and current Vista Charter cases ask the court to consider the new standard of review for charter petition appeals by the SBE, which was enacted in 2019 through Assembly Bill 1505, and returned control to local school boards by limiting the scope of the SBE’s review in the appeal process. As described in a previous CSBA blog, a Sacramento superior court ruled that the SBE abused its authority under the new law in the Napa Valley USD case.

Following the Napa Valley USD case, in July 2023 the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 114, which further defined “abuse of discretion” as “the most deferential standard of review” and clarified that the SBE’s role was to reverse decisions related to charter petitions only if there was an abuse of discretion committed by both the district and county boards of education.

Vista Charter’s petition and denials

Vista currently operates two charter schools in Los Angeles County (both in LAUSD) and four charter schools in Orange County. In August 2022, Vista submitted a charter petition to LAUSD to open a third charter school, Vista Legacy Global Academy, in the district. After holding a public hearing in October 2022, LAUSD’s board took action to deny the charter petition in November 2022, citing three specific reasons for the denial: Vista is demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program in the petition, is demonstrably unlikely to serve the interests of the entire community where the school would be located, and the petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of all the required elements outlined in the Education Code. Vista appealed LAUSD’s decision to LACBOE. In March 2023, LACBOE also denied Vista’s petition based on the same findings made by LAUSD.

Vista then appealed the denials to the SBE, which is responsible for reviewing decisions made by local boards, such as LAUSD’s board and LACBOE, for an abuse of discretion. According to the SBE and their legal counsel from the California Department of Education (CDE), as summarized during the SBE’s Sept. 13, 2023, meeting when Vista’s petition was considered, the SBE’s role is limited to determining if LAUSD and LACBOE’s decisions were arbitrary, capricious, entirely lacking in evidentiary support, unlawful or procedurally unfair. SBE President Linda Darling-Hammond and the state board’s legal counsel further clarified that the SBE reviews the local boards’ findings, and that if they determine that one of the grounds for the denial did not involve an abuse of discretion, the SBE must uphold the findings made by the district and county. The SBE’s legal counsel addressed a question on this standard of review and stated that this interpretation of the law was supported by the decision made in the Napa Valley USD case. Darling-Hammond went on to say that, after reviewing all the materials submitted and the CDE recommendation, there was at least one ground for the denial of Vista’s petition that did not involve an abuse of discretion. Specifically, LAUSD’s finding that the petition did not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of all the required elements outlined in the Education Code did not have an abuse of discretion and was not even challenged by Vista as an abuse of discretion. The SBE then voted and affirmed the denials of LAUSD and LACBOE, meaning the appeal of Vista was denied.

Current litigation

In response to the denial, Vista sued the SBE in Los Angeles Superior Court, requesting a writ of mandate directing the SBE to set aside its decision affirming LAUSD and LACBOE’s decisions to deny the petition, and to rehear the appeal using a different standard of review. Vista’s petition for writ of mandate alleges that the SBE abused its discretion when reviewing the denials because it acted arbitrarily and capriciously and “failed to proceed in a manner required by law [when it failed] to identify and correct the abuses of discretion by LAUSD and LACBOE.” Vista’s petition includes six specific instances of alleged abuse of discretion by the SBE, which include:

  • Failing to find that LAUSD and LACBOE did not make any specific findings or provide analysis that Vista would “substantially undermine” current LAUSD services, which is a required finding under the law.
  • Improperly relying on the decision made in the Napa Valley USD case. Because the case is currently stayed, Vista argues that the SBE’s reliance on the case is improper and the SBE’s conclusions are an abuse of discretion.
  • Committing an abuse of discretion by relying on the Napa Valley case, which was further highlighted by the statement from CDE’s legal counsel that there may be circumstances where the “any one finding” rule may not apply, due to significant procedural unfairness.
  • Failing to rely on section 11967.5.1 of Title 5 in the California Code of Regulations (Criteria for the Review and Approval of Charter School Petitions and Charter School Renewal Petitions by the State Board of Education) when evaluating LAUSD’s and LACBOE’s decisions.
  • Excluding members of the public who identified themselves as employees of Vista from participating in the public comment period because the SBE considered them representatives of Vista and had utilized all their time.
  • Failing to apply the law as it was at the time the appeal was filed. By relying on the law as it was clarified by the Legislature under SB 114, the SBE committed an abuse of discretion.

Once all of the parties have filed their materials with the court, the matter will be considered by the court and a decision will be issued.