Charter School’s Constitutional Right to Due Process Of Law Not Violated When County Office of Education Oversees and Investigates Charter School and County Board of Education Votes On The Charter Revocation
In Today’s Fresh Start, Inc. v. Los Angeles County Office of Education et. al, the California Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a Court of Appeals ruling that the procedures established in the Education Code charging county superintendents, offices of education, and their governing board with oversight of charter schools, including conducting investigations and charter revocation proceedings, does not deprive a charter school of constitutionally required due process.
Today’s Fresh Start, Inc. (“Charter School”) a nonprofit public benefit corporation, petitioned and was granted a countywide charter by the Los Angeles County Office of Education (“LA County Office”). The LA County Office issued the countywide charter through its governing board, the Los Angeles County Board of Education (“Board of Education”).
The charter petition authorized as grounds for revocation “a material violation of any of the conditions, standards, or procedures set forth in this Petition.” The petition also provided that prior to revocation, the Charter School would receive notice of any violation and an opportunity to cure. In June 2007 the LA County Office advised the Charter School that it planned to investigate concerns raised about the school regarding, among other issues, student legal rights, student attendance procedures and testing procedures. The County Superintendent of Schools also submitted requests for documents regarding the Charter School’s compliance with the Corporation’s Code.
At a public Board of Education meeting on October 9, 2007, the LA County Office staff provided the Board of Education a presentation and three binders of information with staff’s investigation of the alleged violations by the Charter School. The Charter School was also provided the same information. The Board of Education authorized the notice to the Charter School of the intent to revoke its charter. The Board of Education held a total of 5 meetings from October through December 11, 2007 before taking final action on the revocation. The Charter School was provided ample time and opportunities to respond to the findings of the investigation reports and questions by the Board of Education.
The Charter School first alleged that the LA County Office and its Board of Education had a financial bias which precluded them from being an impartial decision maker. Specifically the Charter School claimed the LA County Office and its Board of Education competed with charter schools for students and funds and therefore had an incentive to revoke charters in order to maximize their own funding. The Supreme Court disagreed with the Charter School’s claim, primarily because the Charter School was approved to serve students kindergarten to 8thgrade, while the LA County Office only operated a few high schools. The Supreme Court specifically stated, albeit in a footnote, the ruling applied to county offices of education and not necessarily to local school districts with chartering authority.
The Charter School next alleged having the same entity investigate and conduct the revocation hearings was a violation of the Charter School’s due process rights to an impartial decision maker. While acknowledging the Charter School may have a protected property interest in continuing operating of its school, the Supreme Court pointed out that the due process clause does not mandate only one form of procedural safeguards. Specifically, the protections required to ensure fairness in an administrative setting are not as strict as those required in a trial and it is not uncommon for an administrative agency to assume multiple roles. It is also within the state legislature’s discretion to charge the same individual or entity to develop the facts and render a final decision.
The Supreme Court concluded that simply because an educational institution’s staff, including the Superintendent and legal counsel, investigate the charter school and provide evidence to the Board of Education, the Board may nonetheless rely on staff’s recommendation without running afoul of the mandated constitutional due process. The Superintendent and legal counsel did not advocate for revocation and neither was a member of the Board with the responsibility for judging the Charter School’s continued viability. However, the Court made clear the Board of Education must still exercise its own independent judgment based on all the facts before the body and not simply defer to staff’s recommendation.