Which school do you want to support?
Charter schools are important in California. About a tenth of California's K-12 students attend a public school that is organized as a charter school.
Charter schools are public schools that are operated and managed independently from a school district. Like traditional public schools, charter public schools in California 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, what's the point of charter schools? How are they 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.
Charter schools in California are created through an authorizing process that 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, a separate state agency plays a central role in authorization of charter schools. California has no such separate agency. In California, charter schools are authorized and overseen by their local school district or 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 may appeal to the State Board of Education if a district or county abuses its authority in denying authorization or renewal of a charter.)
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 in the authorization process.
Charter agreements 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.
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 power to create policies that provide schools with charter-like flexibility, subject to the boundaries 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.
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.
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:
"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?)
Charter schools are not magic. Generalizing about them is lazy.
In practice, charter school results are mixed. Generalizing about them is lazy, and can cause harm.
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, and updated again in 2017, 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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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 and the Broad Foundation (Insider tip: "Broad" rhymes with "road.").
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, with fewer accountability requirements. 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 2020 California was the 20th most charter-friendly state in America.
Not all public charter schools were created from scratch; during the No Child Left Behind era more than 200 traditional public schools were converted to charter public schools as a way to spur change and, presumably, deliver better results. The conversion process, now rarely used, is roughly the same as the process for approving a new charter, requiring approval by an authorizer. According to research compiled for the Getting Down to Facts II studies, the large number of conversions is one reason why California has "a comparatively large number of charter schools in which teachers are represented by a union."
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 schools in California attempted it. The law is still on the books, but changes in the school accountability system rendered the conditions for the trigger moot.
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 established a two-year moratorium on approval of new charters for online (non-classroom-based) schools.
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.
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