California’s charter school industry is booming. Even as school districts reel from punishing budget cuts and school shutdowns, new charters are sprouting in every corner of the state: just this year, a hundred schools opened for business. There are now 982 of them in California, the most in the country by far, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

More than 412,000 students, or 7 percent of California’s k-12 student population, are now enrolled in charters, which is pretty significant considering that 20 years ago, charter enrollment in the state was zilch.

The basic gist
Charters are publicly funded, tuition-free k-12 schools that operate under specific performance agreements (“charters”) approved by a local school district, county office of education, or the State Board of Education. For California’s charters, the former is usually the governing agency.

What makes them different from conventional public schools?
For the most part, charters operate independently from school districts and have more control over academic achievement and school management than do district-run schools. Although they get similar levels of per-student public funding and are considered a part of the public school system, California’s charters have specific goals and operating procedures – laid out in their original proposals – and are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that apply to conventional schools. They also aren’t required to have a board or governing body and the majority of charter teachers don’t belong to a union (although they can collectively vote to join one). And unlike conventional public schools, which generally serve students who live in specific geographic areas, most charters are known as “schools of choice,” meaning that anyone can attend, regardless of home address.

When did they start … and why?
In 1992 the state legislature passed the Charter Schools Act (SB 1448), making California the second state in the nation (after Minnesota) to allow public charters. The law’s stated intent was to “provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure.” The  initial legislation limited the total number of charters in the state to 100, and no more than 10 per school district. Funding would “follow the student” after leaving a traditional public school. Since then, their numbers have skyrocketed. They’re often started up in traditionally low-income school districts, as a smaller, locally-controlled alternative to large under-performing neighborhood schools. Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have the largest concentrations.

The legislation was a response to two issues: most immediately, it was intended to quell an effort to institute a statewide educational voucher program, in which students would be able to receive public funds to attend private schools (a subsequent 1993 ballot initiative was voted down).  But foremost, it was – and continues to be – a response to California’s increasingly underfunded and under performing public school system.

As recently as the mid-1970’s California’s public school system was regarded as among the best in the nation. And then, largely as a result of a series of

From RAND’s “Ultimate Test” report

statewide tax measures, the funding slowed to a trickle, and the quality followed suit. The chart on the left tells the story pretty clearly. Notice the steep drop off in funding from the mid-70’s to the 80’s? It’s not a coincidence that the quality of schools followed a similar downward path. And as they increasingly failed to provide decent educational opportunities to students, the hunger for alternatives grew.

What requirements do charters have to follow?
They have a bunch of the same state and federal requirements as do traditional schools. Students, for instance, have to take the statewide standards tests (STAR) and the schools are ranked according to their Academic Performance Index (API). Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), they also need to meet yearly academic performance benchmarks. High school charter students also have to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) to graduate. And similar to traditional California public schools, charters are required be non-partisan in all aspects of their operations, including academic programming, admissions, and employment. They can’t charge tuition or discriminate against any student on the basis of gender, ethnicity, country of origin, or disability.

How do you start one?
Step 1: Anyone (a parent, teacher, student, educational organization, etc.) can create and circulate a charter petition – either to start a brand new charter school, or to convert a traditional school. As outlined in California’s Education Code, the petition has to have 16 specific elements that include a description of the school’s structure and student performance expectations, as well as an outline of the operational and management procedures.
Step 2: The petition needs to be signed by either
a) The parents of at least half the students expected to enroll in a school during its first year
b) At least half the teachers expected to work at the new school. For preexisting schools converting to charters, petitions need to be signed by at least half of the permanent-status teachers at the existing school.

According to EdSource, a non-partisan education policy group, school boards are expected to approve a charter unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the plan is educationally unsound, its implementation is unlikely, or specific core requirements have not been fulfilled. If a local district does deny a charter, petitioners can appeal first to the county board of education, and finally to the State Board of Education.

Charter schools are approved for up to five years with subsequent five-year renewal periods. A charter can be revoked by the chartering authority if the school:
a) fails to meet or pursue the originally stated student outcomes
b) shows evidence of fiscal mismanagement
c) violates the law
But unless the infringement is considered to be a major threat to the health or safety of students, charter operators are often given the chance to remedy the situation.

Academically, how do charter schools compare?
The overall student academic performance in California’s charter schools is actually pretty similar to traditional public schools.  According to a 2011 report by the University of Southern California, a slightly higher proportion of charters are performing at the highest category of the API (which measures a school’s average student performance on statewide tests). But, higher proportions of charters are also performing at the bottom two API categories.

Arguments for and against them
The proponents:
a) A lot of traditional public schools fail to provide students with adequate educational opportunities, especially in low-income areas.
b) Large school districts get too mired in bureaucracy and too inefficient to run schools successfully and adequately respond to a community’s needs.
c) Charter schools have greater academic and financial autonomy and more direct community accountability.

The critics:
a) Charter schools divert desperately needed financial and teaching resources from existing struggling schools.
b) They serve only a small fraction of California’s students, and have not proven to be academically superior.
C) They often lack proper accountability, both in terms of student achievement, teacher performance, and teacher rights. This argument is in part a response to accusations that certain charter schools stifle union activity among teachers as well as ingenuously  boost their own academic profiles by recruiting the best students and kicking out the worst. The latter concern has been the focus of a recent bill in the legislature calling for greater transparency regarding student body demographics.

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Why Does California Have So Many Charter Schools? 6 December,2015Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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