You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 5.5

Charter Schools:
Public schools, different rules

Here’s what you need to know about charter schools

hero image

Charter schools are important in California. About a tenth of K-12 students in this state attend one.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools that are operated and managed independently from a school district. In most ways, charter schools in California are like traditional public schools. They must be non-religious, not-for-profit, and tuition-free. They must serve all students, including those learning English and those with special education needs. Charter school teachers in core subjects must have a certificate. Their students must take the same state tests aligned with the same Common Core standards. Their administrators must prepare many of the same reports as those in the traditional system, including the LCAP.

So, you might ask, how are charter schools different?

The most basic difference is that unlike most traditional public schools, charter schools don't have attendance boundaries. Any student can enroll. If there are not enough seats available at a charter school, it will typically give preference to students who live within the sponsoring district or county, then use a lottery process to govern admissions, a process made famous in the movie Waiting for Superman.

How are charter schools created?

Charter schools are created through an authorizing process that in California begins with a petition signed by parents and teachers. In general, the number of signatures on the petition has to represent at least half of the intended school community.

The process from filing a petition to opening a charter school is lengthy and detailed. Charter schools operate under a contract (a charter) that obligates them to provide specific services and to achieve specific results.

States vary widely in their approach to authorizing and overseeing charter schools. In many states, an independent state agency plays a central role in authorization of charter schools. California has no such agency. In California, charter schools are authorized and overseen by their local school district (which competes with them for student enrollment) or by their county office of education. Until 2020, charter schools could also be authorized by the State Board of Education. In exceptional cases, a charter school still has the option to appeal to the State Board of Education if a district or county abuses its authority in denying authorization or renewal of a charter.

Charter schools have independent governance

Charter public schools operate separately from school districts — that's the point. Each charter school is governed by its own board of directors, which is defined and approved through the authorization process.

Charter agreements in California must be renewed every few years — the frequency depends on the school's performance, but five years is typical. If a charter school fails to deliver on its commitments, its authorizer may revoke the charter, closing the school.

About 80% of California charter schools are not unionized

As part of their separate governance, charter schools operate under somewhat reduced regulation compared to traditional public schools. For example, charter schools are not bound by most laws about class sizes, hours of operation, and use of seniority.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools may employ teachers without union representation. But there's a big difference in practice. Union affiliation is fairly rare among teachers in charter schools. About 80% of California charter schools do not use collective bargaining, according to 2016 research. (This rate might be higher now; if you know of fresher data please leave a comment!)

Charter school growth in California

Roughly 10% of California's K-12 students attend a charter school.

From the establishment of the first charter schools in California in the early 1990s, enrollment grew steadily, exceeding 10% of all K-12 students in the state by 2018. In the past decade, public charter enrollment has doubled while enrollment in private schools and traditional public schools has declined. In the pandemic, enrollment in all schools declined.

Charter schools are deeply entwined in the issue of school choice, but they are not the only option for providing it. As discussed in Lesson 5.2, some school districts have softened the attendance boundaries that determine where kids may go to school, creating enrollment systems in which parental preference can also play a role. School boards have the authority to create policies that provide schools with charter-like flexibility, subject to the limitations of collective bargaining agreements.

Funding for public education in California is based on attendance, as discussed in depth in Ed100 Chapter 8. Money follows students. If a student attends a traditional public district school, the funding follows the student to that school's district. School districts are expected to follow suit, allocating resources to schools based on the needs of the students in attendance. If the student attends a public charter school, the funding follows, too.

Charter schools may not be run for profit

Charter schools cannot be run for profit in California

In the past, charter schools in California could be organized as for-profit entities. Bad incidents (including some highlighted by John Oliver) pointed out some scandalous drawbacks of this approach. The California Attorney General reached a $168.5 million settlement with a for-profit online charter school operator over alleged violations of California’s false claims, false advertising and unfair business practices laws. Following this ruling, in 2018, Governor Brown signed AB 406, which prohibits a charter school from being operated as or by a for-profit corporation or organization.

Traditional Public Schools vs Charter Schools

Charter school policy is often caricatured in polarized terms: good or evil. Here are the main points arguments for and against charter schools:

"Charter Schools are Good"

Charter school advocates argue that the purpose of school funding is to educate students, and that school districts should not be entitled to a monopoly in operating public schools to accomplish that purpose. Further, they argue that:

  • School funding "belongs" to students, not school districts.
  • Charter schools can serve as laboratories for innovation because they are less bound by regulations and red tape. Insights developed in these laboratories can create new models that other schools can learn from.
  • Charter schools are nonprofit entities, so concerns about "privatization" are misguided fear-mongering.
  • Offering families a choice for their children’s education creates a market for success and a price for failure. If the school down the street doesn’t measure up, it makes more sense to allow the school to lose enrollment or even close down than it does to compel families to send their kids there.
  • Charter schools have become essential to many Black and Latino communities; efforts to restrict or close them have a disproportionate impact on these groups.

"Charter Schools are Bad"

In the early days, teachers unions supported the original idea of locally-created and locally-governed charter schools to encourage innovation to improve education. But as the charter school sector evolved, teachers unions became sharp critics, with many seeking to halt growth of the sector altogether. (More about this in our blog post Are Charter Schools Good or Evil?)

  • Critics of public charter schools argue that as a matter of democratic principle, public schools ought to be governed only by elected school boards.
  • When students leave a traditional public school, they harm the traditional public school system because funding leaves with them. If the school district does not have counterbalancing growth, it is stuck with the distracting, morale-busting work of downsizing, a process that can be complicated by contracts with unions and vendors.
  • Downsizing is so disruptive to school districts that in 2019 Governor Newsom signed AB 1505, which permits districts to consider the fiscal impact of a charter school on the current students in the district when deciding whether to approve or renew a school's charter.

Do charter schools deliver good results?

Charter schools are not magic. Generalizing about them is lazy.

In practice, charter school results are mixed. Generalizing about them is lazy and distracting.

Many researchers have studied the performance and effects of charter schools. Several essential studies have come from an organization called CREDO at Stanford University. In a large-scale study first published in 2009, updated in 2013, updated again in 2017 and yet again in 2023, CREDO compared public charter school students to “virtual twins” from public traditional schools. Each time it found similar test scores, on average, between these groups.

Both the CREDO studies and other research have found that, on average, public charter schools have been a bit more effective than traditional public schools at improving student achievement in urban areas, especially for black students and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. They have been less effective in suburban and rural areas, especially for white students. But the difference patterns tend to be small.

A long-term, carefully-conducted study published by Education Next in 2020 examined cohorts of students from 2005-2007. This study again reinforced the finding that overall outcomes from traditional public schools and charter public schools tend to be similar — but not for everyone. According to the researchers:

“Our analysis shows that student cohorts in the charter sector made greater gains from 2005 to 2017 than did cohorts in the district sector. The difference in the trends in the two sectors amounts to nearly an additional half-year’s worth of learning. The biggest gains are for African Americans and for students of low socioeconomic status attending charter schools.”

Here's the main point to take from all of this research: Each school is different from each other school. There are patterns, but it's better not to generalize too much. It takes a lot of human work by real people to create a school and make it good, regardless of its governance structure. Stereotypes about charter schools are a bad basis for authorizing, reauthorizing, or deauthorizing decisions. There are some great charter schools, there are some terrible ones, and there are quite a lot of ordinary ones.

Finding opportunity for improvement

Studies about patterns in school results can lead to actionable insights. In 2017, GreatSchools released Searching for Opportunity, a study of racial gaps in access to quality schools in California. Among its many findings, it identified 156 "spotlight schools" that delivered strong results for Hispanic or African American students. A disproportionate share of the high-poverty public schools in California where Latino and African American students are beating the odds are charter schools.

Should ineffective schools be closed?

Supporters of charter schools argue that competitive pressure is not a bad thing, and that no one should mourn the closure of an ineffective school. Opponents counter that this argument rings hollow unless the new school is better than the old one, and that the work of shrinking or closing district schools is a distraction from the real work of educating students. Better, they argue, to improve the schools we have than to roll the dice that a new school will be better.

Charter schools operate subject to the terms of their charter; they can be closed. It happens. For example, in 2017, the California State Board of Education voted to close down two charter schools because of governance and financial concerns.

Charter Management Organizations (CMOs)

In the earliest days of the charter school movement, each charter school was its own start-up operation, from development of its governance structure to finance and facilities to hiring and academic leadership. Although some schools were able to juggle all these factors successfully, it took time and focus away from the main jobs of teaching students and supporting teachers. In recent years, this standalone model has become less common; though charter schools are mainly authorized individually by districts, increasingly they are operated and managed through non-profit charter school networks known as Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). CMOs serve an oversight and operational role analogous to that of a school district, but unlike school districts they are not concentrated in a single neighborhood.

Some relatively well-known CMOs include the KIPP schools, LA Alliance schools, Aspire, Rocketship Schools, YES Prep, UNcommon Schools, Leadership Public Schools, and Green Dot.

Some non-profit organizations have made a priority out of supporting the development and improvement of CMOs. Organizations that have played a strong role in California include the NewSchools Venture Fund, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation (Insider tip: "Broad" rhymes with "road.").

Do other states have charter schools?

The laws of most states permit charter schools, with varying requirements and limitations, summarized periodically by the Education Commission of the States. In 2020, 45 states (plus Washington, D.C.) had charter school laws.

Relative to other states, charter school authorization in California is highly decentralized. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools uses its own rubric to rank the states in terms of policy friendliness for charter schools. Once viewed as a very charter-friendly state, California's rank has been falling. In 2023 California was the 24th most charter-friendly state in America.

Not All Charter Schools Were Created From Scratch

In 2010, California legislation created a mechanism that, for a time, generated enormous controversy: parents of students in schools with very low test scores could trigger a change at the school. The options included conversion to a charter school, replacing staff, removing the principal or closing the school.

This parent trigger policy experienced a brief vogue, but few actually attempted it. The law is still on the books in California as of 2024, but changes in the school accountability system rendered the conditions for the trigger moot.

Reducing the differences

In 2018 and 2019, pressures mounted to regulate California charter schools and CMOs in ways more similar to traditional public schools and districts. In 2019, several laws (summarized in our blog) changed the conditions for charter schools. For example, CMOs must follow the same laws as school districts when it comes to transparency, such as open meetings, public records and conflicts of interest. In 2019 a law also paused approval of new charters for online (non-classroom-based) schools. As of 2024 this moratorium has been extended through 2025.

Charter schools have inspired breathless prose, hate-filled screeds, philosophical tracts, books, statistical treatises, television specials and movies. If you are making a policy decision involving charter schools, take a deep breath and remember to seek multiple perspectives.

The next lesson will address private schools.

Updated March 2024.


Which ONE of the following statements is TRUE?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 29, 2024 at 4:16 pm
Interesting commentary on the meaning of "public" school by Chad Aldeman in "Is Public Education Actually Public? And How Important Is It for Democracy?" He argues, provocatively but with evidence, that "the link between public education and democracy is tenuous at best."
user avatar
Albert Stroberg April 10, 2023 at 1:13 pm
I did not get the specifics of Special Education for those students in need of such. Is the Charter School obligated to provide those services or can they reject the application?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 25, 2023 at 2:23 pm
Charter schools are obligated to provide special education services to student who need them. They may not reject students who need such services. Most charter public schools provide special education services directly (like traditional public schools), but (again, like traditional public schools) they may make use of a collaborative called a SELPA. Most SELPAs serve students regionally, from a mix of public schools (traditional and charter). Much more detail from the LAO here.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 21, 2021 at 11:59 am
The Center for Education Reform is a national organization that advocates for policies that promote parental choice in school enrollment. Periodically it ranks, rates and grades the states. Florida is the organization's longstanding favorite. California's grade in 2021 was a C:
user avatar
Shamrock27 May 27, 2019 at 4:16 pm
I totally believe that charter schools are very hurtful to the schools districts and to the communities, for once their lottery system isn't clear and fair, and none of them seem to be taking students with behavior issues, or academically challenged, therefore, their scores, if they were honestly reporting results, could be higher than public schools. Now, we learned that they will keep the trouble students for the state's money and just before the tests they will students go so their scores will continue higher than others. Their is not transparency on any of their practices, and they keep been very secretive about them. Absolutely, I won't choose any of those schools.
user avatar
Jeff Camp June 3, 2019 at 11:25 am
At this point charter schools have become a convenient villain, blamed for all sorts of problems and accused of all kinds of stuff. People at this point are looking for bad news at charter schoolswith an unfortunate sort of eagerness, as if charter schools were created by bankers (they aren't) and run for profit (they aren't) with disregard for kids (again, they aren't). Like traditional public schools, charter schools are tax-funded. The difference is how they are administered -- they have separate boards. On balance, the results of charter schools (for kids) are a little better than at traditional schools, but it varies a lot.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 7, 2019 at 8:29 pm
Yes, I can vouch that charter schools here in California are as different from one another as stores are from one another. They each have their own personalities, with different missions and different staff. I spent the better part of last year touring as many charter schools as I could, with an interest in finding one that specializes in inclusive learning for children with disabilities. I wound up choosing our public school in Burbank, which is newly doing full inclusion. But if it had not been offering that, I would likely have chosen a charter school that specializes in inclusive learning.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:02 pm
Our daughter teaches in a charter school in one of the states which is the least charter friendly. this means her school is highly regulated, the teachers are unionized, and really is almost like a regular public school with some exceptions (which sadly I can't name other than the kids are drawn from the entire city, wear uniforms and ???). Our daughter hasn't mentioned things that the principal is chafing at the bit about, so perhaps the school district's approach is not too onerous.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar May 20, 2018 at 2:33 pm

In a first-of-its-kind analysis, In the Public Interest has found that public school students in three California school districts are bearing the cost of the unchecked expansion of privately managed charter schools.

The report, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, calculates the fiscal impact of charter schools on Oakland Unified School District, San Diego Unified School District, and San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.

Read the:report
user avatar
Trevor Pickens January 6, 2019 at 5:42 pm
Carol, It is interesting that this report highlights the struggle that LEAs have with charters and CMOs. However, if someone is in favor of choice, which I often hear people claim, this may be evidence of the birth pangs of a "market" system. My first thoughts when hearing the districts complain that charters costs them so much, and how nicer it would be to use that money elsewhere is, 'oh now they want to use the money elsewhere.' The question, which is posed in this article clearly, is whether or not school districts will be allowed to deny charters based on negative financial impact. If this is the case, why approve charters at all? For all, they are your competition. That's akin to one energy company's board having the power to approve or deny the start of another energy company. I love our district-ran schools, and I work at one, but we have to give charters a chance.
user avatar
Pamela Wright April 16, 2018 at 3:30 am
Who chooses the board or people who make the decisions of how the public tax dollars are spent and other decisions are made in the charter schools?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 17, 2018 at 12:41 pm
Charter school boards, once authorized, choose their own members.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 12:34 pm
The NAACP calls for a moratorium on charter school expansion until there is accountability and transparency in their operations. Here is their task force report that recommends reforms.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 2:03 pm
Adding to the charter school debate, Bill Honig in Building Better Schools writes that Charter Schools Are Not the Key to Improving Public Education. He finds: Some of our best schools are charters; they are also some of our worst. Most perform similarly to their district’s non-charter public schools.
If you want to dig deeper into a large number of studies, read the blog:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder May 2, 2017 at 11:10 pm
In 2017's ranking of the top 100 high schools by US News and World Report, a disproportionate number were charter schools.
user avatar
Trevor Pickens January 6, 2019 at 5:46 pm
You know what's also interesting? The list of 156 "spotlight schools" in the 'Searching for Opportunities' report by GreatSchools contains many school in Southern California, most notably in Los Angeles. What about the Bay Area? I saw just a handful. That's embarrassing. Do you have any clues as to why this disparity?
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 19, 2017 at 3:28 pm
Charter schools cannot open unless they are "authorized" to do so by a school district, county or the state. Most charter school proposals (about 77% of them, according to a study by the Fordham Foundation) are rejected -- they never open. Among those that ARE approved, are there ways to predict which are at risk of failure? Yes, according to the Fordham study three factors should be taken seriously as red flags: (1) Lack of identified leadership, or a plan for "self-management" without a specified leader. (2) Weak support plans for students with high needs. (3) A "child-centered" inquiry-based curriculum such as Montessori, Waldorf, or Paideia that requires deeply skilled teachers.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 18, 2016 at 9:50 am
Misperceptions of charter schools: "In a 2014 Gallup poll on education issues, nearly half of respondents said they believed charter schools weren’t public, and that teaching religion was an option. Additionally, 57 percent of respondents said charter schools could charge tuition, and another 68 percent believed schools could practice selective admission. None of these things, at least as far as state laws go, are true." from
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 3, 2015 at 12:17 pm
Test scores and poverty strongly tend to go hand in hand. When a school's students score significantly higher than similar schools, it is said to "beat the odds." There are many schools that DO beat the odds. The Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) compared scores to find schools "beating the odds" and to ask whether these schools tend to be charter schools. CPRE's visual presentation of the data suggests a few conclusions:
(1) Most schools don't beat the odds.
(2) Charter schools account for a small fraction of total enrollment.
(3) Charter schools are more likely to beat the odds than non-charter schools.
(4) The results are very different from one state to another.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 23, 2015 at 12:24 pm
The Education Trust-West, a non-profit that focuses on equity in opportunity for students, analyzed the first wave of CAASPP tests. Their charts do an excellent job of showing the persistent achievement gaps. The report also notes that a disproportionate fraction of the highest-achieving high-poverty schools are charters.
user avatar
cnuptac March 23, 2015 at 6:49 am
We home school our child. The first two kids went to public school and they are four years apart in age. I saw the difference between what the two were learning. Our first child was ready for the world. Four years later I couldn't say our 2nd child was. She took the same classes had the same teachers and learned less. I was not going to have that for our youngest. She is doing great. She is on PTA on the Council and she is ahead in all areas. Because working one on one or on a group of 15 you learn more. You pick the speed of what they are learning. We love it. She loves it.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder March 23, 2015 at 6:25 pm
Home Schools are discussed further in Lesson 5.12
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder January 12, 2015 at 9:39 am
#Myth: "On average charters do no better and no worse than public schools.” In Forbes (1/11/15), Adam Ozimek joined Ed100 in reminding readers that this conventional wisdom about charter schools isn't true. It's a #Myth.
Ozimek suggests a useful new conventional wisdom to better characterize the data: "on average charters do better at educating poor students and black students."
user avatar
blanchekim September 27, 2016 at 9:27 am
I think Mr Ozimek's statement is misleading. By lumping together all "poor students" or "black students" in their own category, one is assuming that they're all the same in terms of family support. Greater family support often leads to better academic outcomes. Those families that even know about the special enrollment process for charters are already more involved and probably give a higher priority to education than families that don't even know or bother to register for their local public school.
user avatar
Sandra Halladey April 22, 2011 at 1:36 pm
When charter schools first started to spring up - one of the main selling points was that they were to be incubators for great ideas/reforms that could then be shared with the whole education system - I have not seen this happen. Some are good and some are not. I am concerned that funders with not much idea of real school reform think that charters are the only game in town and that is plain wrong. Charters are a good reminder to school districts to be more responsive to parents and to communities.
user avatar
Ben Austin April 18, 2011 at 12:27 pm
The Parent Trigger is not necessarily about charter schools. It is about giving power to the only people who only care about kids: parents. We don't see it as a new law, we see it as a new paradigm; an entirely new way of thinking about public education. It's not about charters vs. district schools; it's not about reformers vs. teachers unions. It's simply about giving parents power over the education of their own children.
©2003-2024 Jeff Camp
Design by SimpleSend

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Welcome Back!

Login with Email

We will send your Login Link to your email
address. Click on the link and you will be
logged into Ed100. No more passwords to

Share via Email

Get on Board!
Learn how California's School System works so you can make a difference.
Our free lessons are short, easy to read, and up to date. Each lesson you complete earns a ticket for your school. You could win $1,000 for your PTA.

Join Ed100

Already a member? Login

Or Create Account