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How Charter Schools Became Such a Big Player in California's Education System

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New legislation could significantly limit the expansion of charter schools in California.  (Getty Images)

In the recent school walkouts in Oakland and Los Angeles, striking teachers and their unions took particular aim at charter schools, accusing them of stripping traditional public schools of crucial resources.

Both cities have higher concentrations of students enrolled in charters than nearly anywhere else in California. And in the deals that ultimately ended the two labor disputes, each district agreed to consider moratoriums on new charters.

Oakland's school board, which hasn't approved any new charters in several years, is expected to vote this week on whether to officially suspend the approval process.

For the last two decades, Oakland has been a veritable charter boomtown: There are now 45 charter schools attended by about 30 percent of the city's K-12 students, up from 13 charters in 2003. Largely as a result, the district lost about 17,000 students in those 16 years.

The first charter school in Oakland, and one of the first in the California, opened in 1993 in the Fruitvale neighborhood, just a year after the state Legislature gave charters the green light. Oakland's public school system had long struggled academically and financially, and with residents eager for better educational options for their children, the city became fertile ground for new charters to take root.


Fueled by a large influx of outside funding from wealthy donors and a succession of charter-friendly district superintendents and city and state officials, new charter schools in Oakland proliferated, particularly in the decade after 2000, when the number of charter schools in the city more than tripled.


Graphic: A steady decrease in public school enrollment is matched by a similar steady increase in charter school enrollment. (Elena Lacey/KQED)


And while certainly not the sole cause of Oakland Unified’s perennial budget woes, the rise of charters is a factor that has undeniably contributed to the district's fiscal distress. Because OUSD receives per-pupil state funding, having fewer students means a lot less money for the district, even as its school building and administrative costs remain roughly the same. The Los Angeles and Oakland teachers unions frequently cite a 2018 report by the left-leaning Bay Area policy center, In The Public Interest, estimating that charter growth cost L.A. Unified more than $508 million in 2014-15 and Oakland Unified $57 million in 2016-17.

Charter school advocates, though, are quick to dismiss the report as blatantly biased, noting that IPI is affiliated with the Partnership for Working Families, whose funders include organized labor. They say that charters are being unfairly scapegoated, and argue that these schools fill a dire need for educational alternatives in many underserved communities, where traditional public schools have largely failed to provide students with the quality education they deserve. Charter schools offer parents and students more choices, which they contend is an inherently good thing.

Supporters also argue that charters offer a more innovative, customized approach to learning for many students, particularly those in low-income communities, who might otherwise fall through the cracks in traditional public schools. Charters, they say, provide greater academic and financial autonomy and have more direct accountability to the communities they serve.

After two decades of rapid, largely unchecked growth throughout the state, charter schools are now a flashpoint in the debate over the fate of public education in California.

As part of his pledge to bring “long overdue” transparency and accountability measures to California's charter schools, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new legislation in early March, requiring them to adhere to the same conflict-of-interest and open-meeting rules as their traditional counterparts.

The move marks a departure from the lighter-touch approach taken by his charter school-friendly predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, who twice vetoed similar legislation — and as mayor of Oakland, helped launch two charter schools.

SB 126 is just the first of a cascade of new bills introduced by lawmakers that would subject the state’s more than 1,300 charter schools to an increased level of scrutiny and cap their growth statewide.

So let's take a step back. What exactly are charter schools? And how did they establish such a strong and controversial foothold within California’s education system?

The basic gist

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run K-12 schools that are tuition-free. They are considered part of the public school system, although not subject to some of the rules and oversight of traditional schools.

Each of California's roughly 1,300 charter schools has its own specific goals and operating procedures as laid out in an original proposal ("charter") that's been approved by the school district, or the county or state board of education.

Many charter schools in California are run independently and got their start through grassroots community organizing efforts. A significant number, though, are overseen by large groups, known as charter management organizations, which operate multiple schools and often receive hefty funding from affluent charter boosters.

Some of the larger, more well-known of these organizations have expanded to other states, including Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Aspire Public Schools and Green Dot Public Schools.

While conventional public schools generally serve students who live within specific geographic zones, most charters are known as "schools of choice," meaning that anyone can attend, regardless of home address.

The majority of charter teachers — upward of 90 percent — don't belong to a union. Teachers can technically vote to join one, and some have, including the roughly 600 teachers and counselors at Green Dot Schools, who are part of Asociación de Maestros Unidos, a California Teachers Association/National Education Association affiliate.

Until recently, California’s charter schools could be run by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations, as they are in many other states around the country. That changed under a 2018 state law, which banned new for-profit charters. Prior to the law's enactment, five for-profit groups operated roughly 35 schools statewide. The law, which takes effect July 1, allows schools currently run or managed by for-profit companies to remain open as long as they switch to nonprofit management when their charters are up for renewal.

When did charter schools start in California ... 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 law limited the total number of charters in the state to 100, and no more than 10 per school district (except Los Angeles, which was allowed 20) — a cap soon scrapped by subsequent legislation. Funding would “follow the student” after leaving a traditional public school. In 1993, San Carlos Charter Learning Center, an elementary school in San Mateo County, became the first charter school in the state.

Charter schools in California got a more solid footing after voters passed Proposition 39 in 2000, requiring school districts to make facilities available to charter schools that serve students who live within the district.

Since then, their numbers have skyrocketed, with steady, rapid growth across the state, which has only recently begun to slow.

With more than 600,000 students in the state’s roughly 1,300 charters schools – about 10 percent of all public school students statewide – California leads the nation in both the number of charters and the number of students attending them (although states like Arizona, Florida and Utah have higher percentages).

They're often started in traditionally low-income school districts, as smaller, locally controlled alternatives to underperforming neighborhood schools. Los Angeles and the Bay Area, particularly Oakland, have some of the highest concentrations.

As recently as the mid-1970s, California's public school system was regarded as among the best in the nation, and the state, not coincidentally, also had one of the nation’s highest per-pupil spending rates. Then, largely as a result of a series of statewide tax measures — namely Proposition 13 — funding quickly slowed to a trickle, and in many districts across the state, the quality of public schools followed suit. Today, California ranks a dismal 41st nationally in per-pupil public school spending.

Who are some big supporters and opponents?

Despite the generally friendly reception charter schools have received in California over the last two decades, particularly by key state leaders like Gov. Jerry Brown and his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’ve also faced strong resistance from the California Teachers Association and the local district-level unions it represents. The CTA has consistently lobbied lawmakers to limit their growth and require greater accountability, an effort that seems to now be bearing fruit.

Interestingly, one of the earliest boosters of the concept of charter schools was Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who in the late 1980s promoted the idea of creating experimental schools that would be better equipped to accommodate students who had failed in their traditional schools. Just five years later, however, he publicly renounced the idea, arguing that it had been adopted by anti-union businesses seeking profits. “Vouchers, charter schools, for-profit management schemes are all quick fixes that won’t fix anything,” he wrote.

Pushing back against stricter regulations is the California Charter Schools Association, which represents most of the state’s charters.

“Not for a second will I apologize for the growth of charters that are meeting the needs of parents and are contributing to lifting up our brown and black kids, our disadvantaged students and providing them a lifeline of opportunity for greater success in our great state,” Myrna Castrejón, president of CCSA, told CALmatters.

The charter school sector is also commonly criticized for receiving large amounts of funding from corporate philanthropies like the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation, which have both poured millions into charter organizations across the country and strongly influenced education policy in a number of states, including California.

A 2018 Associated Press investigation found that philanthropists and their private foundations and charities have given almost half a billion dollars to state-level charter support organizations since 2006. California's charter industry has been a major recipient of that funding, with donors contributing more than $100 million to the CCSA alone, according to the AP, money that the group has used to start up new schools throughout the state as well as lobby for charter-friendly legislation and push pro-charter candidates in local and statewide elections.

Do charters have to follow the same rules as traditional schools, and how do they line up academically?

Charters are largely unbeholden to school boards and school districts and most don't have to a negotiate with teachers unions. They also generally have a lot more flexibility in terms of hiring, fundraising and allocating resources.

But they still do have to follow some of the same state and federal academic requirements. Students in charters, for instance, have to take the same statewide standardized tests as those in traditional public schools based on Common Core State Standards. And similar to traditional California public schools, charters are required to be nonpartisan 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.

Charter critics, however, argue that oversight is often lax in many charter schools, and some deliberately attract higher-performing students. That position was supported by a 2017 study of charter schools in Oakland, which found that charters there tend to enroll students who are more academically prepared than students who attend district-run schools, giving those schools an edge when compared academically. The study also found that while charters in Oakland receive less public funding than do district schools, they serve a much lower percentage of students with disabilities.

Even so, there’s little evidence suggesting that charter schools, on average, have higher academic performance rates than traditional public schools. Much depends on the individual school and district.

How do you start a charter?

Anyone — a parent, teacher, student, educational organization, etc. — can create and circulate a charter petition to start a new charter school or convert a traditional school. As detailed in California’s Education Code, the petition must include a description of the school’s structure and student performance expectations, as well as an outline of the operational and management procedures.

The petition needs to be signed by either the equivalent of half the number of teachers expected to work at the school during its first year or by the parents or guardians of half the number of students expected to enroll.

School boards are expected to approve charters in their district unless it can be clearly demonstrated that the plan is educationally unsound. The fiscal impact of the charter can’t be considered in the decision — one of the rules that some legislators are now trying to upend.

If a local district denies a charter, petitioners can appeal to the county board of education and eventually to the State Board of Education.

Charter schools are approved for up to five years, with subsequent five-year renewals. Charters can be revoked if financial mismanagement occurs, or if the school fails to adhere to the terms of the original charter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that students in California charter schools have to take the California High School Exit Exam and that charters are ranked based on the statewide Academic Performance Index. Both of those measures have since been phased out for all schools in California. Charter school and traditional public school students must now participate in the Smarter Balanced Assessment System based on Common Core State Standards.

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