SUNNYVALE — State Attorney General Dan Lungren on Thursday endorsed a proposed ballot measure to increase the number of charter schools in California, but said he would continue to push for a full-scale school voucher system if elected governor.
And Lungren, the all-but-certain Republican nominee for the governorship this year, said he opposes moves to lower the approval threshold for local school construction bonds from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority, but would be willing to compromise at 60 percent.
In his first major education speech of the campaign, Lungren told a luncheon gathering of about 100 Silicon Valley local officials and computer company executives that the charter school initiative would “institute freedom by breaking the hold of a bloated bureaucracy and replacing it with parental empowerment. . . . I believe this initiative offers a literal lifeline to parents whose children are trapped in bad schools.”
Lungren said it is “nonsense” to believe — as does his Democratic rival Gray Davis — that parental disinterest is partly to blame for poor pupil performances.
“I’m sorry to say it. There’s no polite way to put it. Even though we have some great school districts and great schools, in general, California has shown to be one of the worst” school systems in the nation, Lungren said.
The ballot measure, proposed by a handful of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, would eliminate the current state limit of 100 charter schools, make it easier for school districts to create the schools and provide that districts could pay teachers based on their classroom performance.
The measure says schools that rank in the bottom 10 percent in the state can become charter schools by petition of a majority of parents of students in the school. Backers of the proposed constitutional amendment have until July 6 to collect 693,230 signatures to place the measure on the November ballot.
Lungren is the first gubernatorial candidate to endorse the initiative, but Democrats Al Checchi, Davis and Jane Harman also have called for more charter schools. At present, about 40,000 students in grades K-12 are in charter schools, which are public, tuition-free institutions freed from some state rules to encourage more creative methods of learning.
Lungren said he would not back off a far more controversial idea: providing publicly financed vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools. But Lungren said change would likely come slowly and the charter schools measure — along with Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposal to offer vouchers to students at the worst public schools — may be necessary political steps before a full voucher system is accepted, he said.
“I believe vouchers are ultimately the best way to improve education in California,” Lungren said after the speech. “I am a political realist, however, and I think you improve by incremental change.”
Lungren said he remains, for now, neutral on the June ballot measure that would largely eliminate bilingual education. The current system is wrong and should be scrapped, he said. But the ballot measure by Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz may “go too far in straitjacketing local school districts and their ability to respond,” Lungren added.
He said his campaign advisers are meeting with supporters of the initiative to get more information.
He also said he would accept a 60 percent voting threshold for approval of local school bonds as a compromise between conservatives — who are unwilling to go below the current two-thirds margin — and others — including Wilson — who are seeking a change to a majority vote.
School officials have complained that the two-thirds requirement, which has been in the state constitution since 1879, makes it too difficult for them to raise money to replace or fix dilapidated school buildings.
A 60 percent approval level, Lungren said, “will allow legitimate requests for bond issues to pass” without violating “the notion that’s been in our constitution for over 100 years that you should have a super-majority.”