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Lesson 5.5

Charter Schools:
Public schools, different rules

Here’s what you need to know about charter schools

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Image: KIPP CC Ms. SmittyB

Charter schools are tax-funded schools with loosely-defined attendance areas.

Charter schools operate under a contract (a "charter") that obligates them to provide specific services and to achieve specific results. If the school fails to deliver, the charter may be revoked by the school's authorizer, which may be a school district, a county, or the state.

Each charter school is under the direct governance of its own board of directors, which is defined and approved in the authorization process. Each charter school is also associated with a public school district or county board of education that provides oversight. (A few are overseen by the state.)

Anyone who lives within the sponsoring district of a charter school may attend it. If there are not enough seats available, charter schools use a lottery process to govern admissions, a process made famous in the movie Waiting for Superman.

About two-thirds of California charter schools are not unionized.

As part of their separate governance, charter schools operate under reduced regulation compared to other public schools. For example, charter schools are not bound by laws about class sizes, hours of operation and the like. Charter schools also may employ teachers without union representation. About two-thirds of California charter schools are not unionized.

Charter Schools in California

From the establishment of the first charter schools in California in the early 1990s, enrollment grew steadily, reaching 7.6% of all public school enrollment in 2012-13 and approaching 10% by 2017. In a decade, charter enrollments nearly tripled while overall school enrollment remained essentially flat.


Perhaps partly in response to charter schools, districts have increasingly incorporated parent preference as a factor in the determining where children attend school. In doing so, they are moving away from the idea of "attendance areas" for schools and implementing school choice systems that include more and more of their schools.

Charter school advocates put forward two main theories for how charter schools can improve educational outcomes broadly:

  • First, they argue that charter schools serve as laboratories for innovation because they are less bound by regulations and red tape. Insights developed in these laboratories create new models that other schools can follow.
  • Second, they argue that 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 sense for that school to lose enrollment.

Critics of charter schools argue (among other things) that the long-term effect of choice policies is to gradually remove schools from communities where needs are greatest. They also argue that because an action is required to choose a charter school, the students with the least-engaged parents and greatest needs are effectively selected out.


Those who hoped that a charter school movement would quickly catalyze astounding results on a widespread basis have had to moderate their hopes.

In practice, charter school results are mixed, and advocates on all sides find facts to support their point of view.

Many researchers have studied the performance and effects of charter schools. Perhaps the most interesting study with the largest number of charter school students comes from an organization called CREDO at Stanford University. In a study first published in 2009 and updated in 2013, CREDO compared charter school students to their “virtual twins” from the traditional public schools. It found similar test scores, on average, between these groups. However, both the CREDO study and other research suggest that charter schools might be more effective with improving student achievement in urban areas, especially for Black students, and less effective with improving student achievement in non-urban areas, especially for White students. The effects were modest, however.

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; of those schools serving at least the state average of low-income students, half were charter schools.

There are some great charter schools – including a disproportionate share of America's very best schools, according to the 2016 ranking by US News and World Report. But there are also some terrible ones, and quite a lot of ordinary ones. 

Those who hoped that a charter school movement would quickly catalyze astounding results on a widespread basis have had to moderate their hopes.

How charters are created

Charter schools have become a very important part of the dialogue about school change and school "turnarounds". Not all charter schools are created from scratch; some are created through "conversion" from ordinary schools. The conversion process is usually the same as the process for approving a new charter, requiring approval by an "authorizer" such as a school district, county or the state. In 2010, California legislation created a new 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. This could include changing it to a charter school, replacing staff, removing the principal or closing the school down.

This "parent trigger" policy passed into law under a bill sponsored by Gloria Romero, then a California Senator. Several other states implemented versions of the trigger law. Although much has been written about the law, very few schools have actually attempted to use this approach to school change.

California’s taxes pay for the education of California’s children. Whether a child enrolls in a public district school or a public charter school, funding follows the student. A family’s choice about where that child will attend school, therefore, is a matter of financial consequence. When families choose to enroll their child in a school, that school receives money to hire teachers, run programs, and support administrative costs.

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. For example, in 2017, the California State Board of Education voted to close down two charter schools because of governance and financial concerns. And 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.

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, 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 and the Broad Foundation (Insider tip: "Broad" rhymes with "road.").

For-profit charter networks: "EMOs"

Not all charter networks are organized as non-profits. For-profit charter networks are known as Education Management Organizations (EMOs).

The laws of most states permit the formation and operation of charter schools, with varying requirements and limitations. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which tracks charter school laws in each state, in 2017 California was the 16th most charter-friendly state in America.

Hover your mouse over a state in the image below to see its ranking. (Unranked states have no charter law.)


Forming a charter school requires local support, and tends to inspire local opposition, as well. Charter schools compete for enrollment with local schools, and the energy required to form a new school competes for attention with efforts to improve existing ones. The conflicts are local, but they tend to be supported on both sides by big organizations. Unions frequently oppose the formation of charter schools, most of which do not have union-affiliated faculty and staff. Charter school organizations tend to provide support the groups forming new schools. The conflicts can be extraordinarily strong, and sometimes can lead to surprising divisions. For example, in 2010 the Oakland Educators Association withheld support for a local ballot measure that would have provided new funding for K-12 education in Oakland. The basis for the union's opposition was that the measure was written to benefit children in charter schools as well as district schools. Lacking union support, the measure failed.

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

The next lesson will address private schools.

Lesson updated May 3, 2017
Updated state rankings. Added interactive map. Updated info about the "parent trigger".

Updated Dec 2017


It is often said that charter schools operate under far fewer regulations than "regular" public schools, but LCFF has narrowed the differences. One of the statements below is false. Which is it?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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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
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
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.
©2003-2018 Jeff Camp
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