Charter schools continue to expand in California



Photo courtesy Neighborhood Centers Inc.

Photo courtesy Neighborhood Centers Inc.

At least 100 new charter schools opened in California this fall, pushing the total number to close to a thousand, according to figures from the California Department of Education.

The total number of charters opening this year, according to state records, is about 15 shy of last year’s record total of 115 charter schools.  While the decline may not be indicative of a longer term trend,  some of the state’s leading charter school organizations are exploring expanding into other states where they will have more funding per student and feel the environment is more receptive to charter schools.

Reflecting a steady growth since the passage of the Charter School Act in 1992, state figures indicate there are some 982 charter schools currently open in the state. As in earlier years, charter school growth is being spurred in part by the infusion of private philanthropic dollars from foundations like the Walton Family Foundation, as well as by a number of state and federal funding programs, especially for start-up charters.

Charter schools opened in 30 out of California’s 58 counties, but by far the largest number of new charters were in Los Angeles County. Nearly one third of the schools that opened this year were granted charters by the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of a drive to provide parents with greater “public school choice” in the district.

With eight new charters, Santa Clara County had the next highest, followed by San Diego with seven, and Riverside and San Joaquin with six each. Alameda had five, Sonoma had four, while Humboldt, Sacramento, and Kern Counties had three each.

Among those that opened were four new charter schools by Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization. With 34 schools serving some 12,000 students, Aspire now operates the largest number of charter schools of any charter organization in the state.

However, Aspire CEO James Wilcox said the state’s budget crisis has made it “harder to do great work.”  Charter schools, he said, “are opening in the face of great budget strains.”

But he said it was hard to turn down the opportunity to work with Los Angeles Unified. “We were compelled by the opportunity to work with LAUSD and the public school choice program to show that charter schools could collaborate with public schools.”

Wilcox said his organization, which currently only operates in California, is “actively looking into the possibility” of opening schools outside the state.

“We feel there are opportunities outside of California to do something special for an entire city,” he said. He mentioned places such as New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, and Memphis as possible locations.

“I do think that charter school growth (in California) will slow in the future because it will get to the point where schools will be struggling to do great work and finding it hard to meet the needs of students and families and do it well,” he said.

Charter high schools receive $6,548 per student in attendance from the state, while elementary and middle schools receive between $5,477 and $5706, depending on the grade. These funds are lower than the average spent per student in many other states, and typically don’t cover the full costs of running a  school.  Among other reductions, budget cuts have also driven down the basic amount charters receive by about $600 per student since its peak in 2007-08.

“Many charter schools are being severely challenged,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, in an interview this fall. One major obstacle, he said, is accessing state and federal funds they are entitled to “in a timely fashion.”

Most impacted are “standalone” charters that are not part of an established “charter management organization” with experience opening and running schools.

Many chose to start up before they received the federal Public Charter School Grant fund administered by the state, and have to borrow money just to open their doors.

Trisha Vais, principal of the Trivium Charter School in Santa Barbara which opened this fall, said she had to borrow funds to make payroll in the first months of school, but was able to convince the companies that supplied curriculum materials to defer payment for 90 days. When she talked with EdSource in October, she had applied for a Public School Grant from the state but said “of course we have not yet seen any money.”

Other schools were more fortunate because they received funds from private foundations.

“It has been hectic,” said Celia Walker, co-founder and board president of the Evangeline Roberts Institute of Learning, a new school in San Diego which was a recipient of a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.  The goal of Walker’s school is to help kindergarten through 3rd grade students “become expressive individuals who will exercise their power of choice to become productive citizens and lifelong learners and thinkers.”

The school is hoping to get a low-interest loan to get through the fall semester. But Walker said she had no second thoughts about opening,

Typically the opening of a charter school comes at the end of an arduous process of first petitioning local school boards for a charter, and then filing an appeal to county school boards or the state if their petitions are denied. They then are faced with the reality of making the financing work.

Ida Oberman, of the newly-opened Community School for Creative Education in Oakland, said the financial challenges have been “unbelievable.” The school had been in the planning stages for four years; its petition for a charter had been turned down twice by the local district and was finally approved at a county level.

It did get a grant of $200,000 from the Walton Family Foundation, but has not yet received any funds from the state. “A group of us had been planning this for many years, so we just stayed the course,” Oberman said.

The financing challenge, she said,  is “a constant, huge distraction.” Even after being able to open this year, she said, “nobody should feel secure in this environment.”

James Dent, principal of Gilroy Prep School in Gilroy, said his school was fortunate to have started with 180 students this fall, which brought in some money from the state. He said they also borrowed money-saving ideas about technology in the classroom from Rocketship Academy, an acclaimed charter school in San Jose.

By using computers in a creative way, the school has fewer credentialed teachers than a non-charter school. It also has a minimal administrative staff.  Dent points out that he is teaching some classes himself.

EdSource’s Raquel Gonzales and Monique Smith conducted research for this story.

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