Theresa Harrington/EdSource
Students line up after recess at Achieve Academy charter school in Oakland.
This post has been updated to reflect new fall 2017 data

What are charter schools, who runs them and how are they different from traditional public schools?

Charter schools are public schools that get funding from the state and have greater flexibility in hiring, curriculum, management and other aspects of their operations. Unlike traditional public schools that are run by school districts with an elected school board and a board-appointed superintendent, most charter schools are run by organizations with their own self-appointed boards.

In general, this independence gives charter schools more room to experiment and to come up with instructional and other innovations. That was one of the chief reasons California lawmakers passed a law in 1992 allowing charters to operate.   California was the second state to pass legislation allowing charters (Minnesota was the first).

A majority of charters in California comprise a single school.  But there are also many prominent charter management organizations that run a number of under the same management umbrella. These include well known CMOs such as Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), Camino Nuevo Charter Academy and Aspire Public Schools.

Teachers at most charter schools do not belong to unions. But teachers at some charter schools, teachers have voted to join unions, like Green Dot Public Schools where teachers belong to the Asociación de Maestros Unidos, a California Teachers Association/National Education Association affiliate.

How many charters are there in California?

There were 1,275 charters in California in the fall of 2017. Around 330 of these charters are considered dependent or semi-autonomous, meaning they are actually operated by school districts and have fewer freedoms than typical charter schools do. The remainder are so-called “independent” charter schools, most of which are nonprofit organizations. According to the state Assembly’s analysis, California has 34 charter schools run by for-profit organizations enrolling over 25,000 students.

Overall there are 630,000 students enrolled in charter schools in California — about a tenth of the state’s total K-12 public-school student population.

How does California’s charter school growth compare with other states?

California leads the nation in both number of charters and charter students. As of  the 2014-15 school year, the latest federal data on all 50 states available, the state was among the 10 states with the highest percentages of public school students enrolled in charters, although states like Arizona, Florida and the Utah have higher percentages. California accounts for about a fifth of the country’s 3 million students enrolled in charter schools.

How receptive is California to charter schools? 

California has had a complex relationship with charter schools ever since the Legislature passed the state law permitting charter schools to exist. On the one hand, the state has been friendly to the charter school model. California has more charter schools than any other state and a larger charter school enrollment than any other state.  Still, charter schools have faced strong headwinds from organizations such as the California Teachers Association. While not opposing charter schools outright, the teachers union — with occasional support from the American Civil Liberties Union and the California School Boards Association,  the chief organization representing local school boards — has sought to convince the Legislature to pass laws that could limit charter school growth and require these schools to follow more of the state laws governing matters such as student discipline and enrollment policy.

Usually opposing these laws is the California Charter Schools Association, which represents most of the state’s charters. Some of these laws have passed the state Legislature only to be vetoed by the last two governors — Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. In fact, Gov. Brown was instrumental in establishing two charter schools in Oakland. In the past few years the charter schools association has significantly ramped up its campaign spending to back charter-friendly candidates for local school boards and the state Legislature. At a local level, support for charter schools varies considerably, depending on the district. Whether union criticism of charter schools will increase is unclear; the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, in July 2017 passed a resolution that called for a new set of restrictions on charter schools.

How are charter schools authorized in California? And what happens if a charter’s request to operate is denied?

Charter organizations must seek approval to open a school and must apply to renew their charter to exist every five years. Charter school operators can submit petitions to school districts for authorization, and in some cases to county offices of education or the State Board of Education. These decisions can become politicized, especially in recent years as districts became concerned about declining student enrollments and the belief that they’re losing some students to charter schools. Typically, local, county or state school boards make their decisions during a public hearing and after recommendations from district, county or state staffers. Most charter schools pay an oversight fee of 1 to 3 percent of their revenues to the districts or agencies that authorize their charters.

If an application is denied by the district, charter operators can appeal to their county office of education and then the State Board of Education. Charter applications are often hundreds of pages long.

What’s the process in California for giving charter schools buildings and land to operate?

Charter schools use various approaches for securing facilities. Under Proposition 39, an initiative approved by voters in 2000, school districts are required to share unused space with charter schools. This can mean that a charter school and a district-run school can operate out of the same building — with the schools dividing floors or hallways. But the California Charter Schools Association says districts at times don’t fully embrace initiatives requirement that charter schools be given “reasonably equivalent” space to those of traditional public schools. Districts may counter that some seemingly available space is reserved for science lab or other purposes. Charter schools may also lease or build their own facilities, though those charters must then meet local zoning laws, which can be difficult to accomplish. Charter schools can also get financial support for facilities through other state and federal programs.

How do charter networks with campuses in multiple cities juggle dealing with different school districts that have different regulations or standards for approving charter schools?

Charter networks at times employ consultants to help them navigate the different rules each district has for new charter applications. Districts have different standards and expectations, ranging from rules governing how the public can access charter-school board meetings to rules on the financial ties between a charter’s board members and businesses that provide services to charters, like back-office support or food delivery. In some cases, one authorizer’s requirements may conflict with another’s — another challenge to a network trying to establish charter schools in multiple jurisdictions.

What does it take for a charter to end operations, and how many have closed recently?

Charters must be renewed every five years by their authorizing body. These bodies look at a range of factors, including students’ academic performance, financial statements and other indicators, in deciding whether to renew them.

The California Education Code lays out several guidelines or processes for closing a charter school after it exhausts its appeals. Before a charter receives its petition from the district, county or state, it must have in place a plan in the event the school’s charter is revoked. The closing school must share student records, such as transcripts and special-education student needs, with schools where the students ultimately enroll. According to state education data, 35 charters closed down in the 2015-16 school year (see top of page for link to state data).

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  1. Sergio Flores 5 months ago5 months ago

    Let's talk about intention and results. In the U.S., public schools were born in the mid-1800s as a response to the need of educating a population that was deprived of such opportunity. There were only some private schools to which only the privileged of that time could go. The noble idea of public education was born. For more than a century the public school system functioned, grew, and evolved trying to provide this … Read More

    Let’s talk about intention and results. In the U.S., public schools were born in the mid-1800s as a response to the need of educating a population that was deprived of such opportunity. There were only some private schools to which only the privileged of that time could go. The noble idea of public education was born. For more than a century the public school system functioned, grew, and evolved trying to provide this civic service to everyone.
    Then, in the 1980s leaders with a different attitude and vision were looking at public schools and criticizing them for alleged failures. Severe criticism started to emerge. Later in the 1990s and 2000s, corporate reformers elevated what initially was a problem to a crisis level and brought the notion of charter schools.
    Their idea received financial and political support and was implemented with the intention to become laboratories or to succeed where public schools were not. Interestingly, charter schools were not originally intended to compete with or substitute public schools. Yet, with no research supporting the transformation or a pragmatic explanation for it, corporate reformers impose a policy to turn allegedly failing public schools into charter schools, as if that was a solution to the problem. Interestingly, after many years of trying charter schools, the results do not validate the intention. Not only the problems have not been solved, but a new list of problems had been created making the provision of public school more complicated. It would be a good idea for all stakeholders to take some time and answer the questions among others: What was been gained and what has been lost since charter schools were created? Has the general public been benefited? Or just a fraction of the population? An honest discussion is in order, and these questions are essential for that purpose.
    Who wins, who loses, who cares?

  2. el 5 months ago5 months ago

    This answer is nonsense: Charter schools are public schools that get funding from the state and enjoy flexibilities in hiring, curriculum and management. Unlike traditional public schools that are run by school districts with an elected school board and a superintendent it appoints, most charter schools are run by organizations with their own self-appointed boards. This independence gives charter schools more room to experiment with instructional and other innovations. Having an elected school board versus having a cherry-picked … Read More

    This answer is nonsense:

    Charter schools are public schools that get funding from the state and enjoy flexibilities in hiring, curriculum and management. Unlike traditional public schools that are run by school districts with an elected school board and a superintendent it appoints, most charter schools are run by organizations with their own self-appointed boards.

    This independence gives charter schools more room to experiment with instructional and other innovations.

    Having an elected school board versus having a cherry-picked self appointed board has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability to experiment with instruction or other innovations.

    As Raoul commented earlier, this is my biggest concern with the way charters are set up, that board members may have no connection to or accountability to the communities they serve, with little opportunity for a community to influence or correct issues at what is supposed to be a public entity serving their children. This is especially problematic if a charter operator takes over what was previously a neighborhood public school.

  3. Raoul 5 months ago5 months ago

    In a for-profit corporation, shareholders democratically elect directors. Directors provide overall management and select officers and senior administrators. After salaries and other expenses are paid from revenues, the remaining profit is distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends. In contrast is a "non-profit" corporation. I can set one up, appoint myself and maybe a pal or two as directors and administrators. I can declare my non-profit to be a charter … Read More

    In a for-profit corporation, shareholders democratically elect directors. Directors provide overall management and select officers and senior administrators. After salaries and other expenses are paid from revenues, the remaining profit is distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends.

    In contrast is a “non-profit” corporation. I can set one up, appoint myself and maybe a pal or two as directors and administrators. I can declare my non-profit to be a charter school and find a district, county office, or the state to “authorize” me. I hype and advertise my school’s excellence and draw in students. I hire inexperienced teachers at modest salaries and poor benefits, and churn and burn. Since my school is not allowed to have profit, I simply pay what would otherwise be a profit to myself and my pals as administrative salaries and bonuses, and classify the payment as for operating expense. I can also get more elaborate and own or control a charter management organization, CMO, and funnel expensed payments from the school, ultimately from public money, to myself and my pals through it for “management.” Who and what is there in real life that stops such scenarios, given the “self-appointing” and undemocratic nature of charter boards and management?

  4. David B. Cohen 5 months ago5 months ago

    I would take issue with the simple statement that charters are public schools. They are using mostly public money to serve some members of the public, and they need approval from a public entity, but their leadership is unelected and often unaccountable and non-transparent. Their enrollment policies are often questionable. I think some smaller charters with genuine community voice and engagement are doing good work. The larger operators with the chain-store mentality are predatory in … Read More

    I would take issue with the simple statement that charters are public schools. They are using mostly public money to serve some members of the public, and they need approval from a public entity, but their leadership is unelected and often unaccountable and non-transparent. Their enrollment policies are often questionable. I think some smaller charters with genuine community voice and engagement are doing good work. The larger operators with the chain-store mentality are predatory in nature, looking to degrade public schools in order to grow their brand and market share.

  5. Olga Flores 5 months ago5 months ago

    Charter schools are rarely innovative and do not create success and equitable opportunities for all public school children. Charter schools in California do not advocate for increased funding for all school children, and their presence undermines local communities' ability to provide essential resources, librarians, classrooms, special ed services, and highly paid teachers. Charter schools should be locally chartered and governed, serve a specified high needs group of students, and should be part of a local … Read More

    Charter schools are rarely innovative and do not create success and equitable opportunities for all public school children. Charter schools in California do not advocate for increased funding for all school children, and their presence undermines local communities’ ability to provide essential resources, librarians, classrooms, special ed services, and highly paid teachers. Charter schools should be locally chartered and governed, serve a specified high needs group of students, and should be part of a local school system. As they are currently approved by the state board, often contrary to the local parents’ wishes, they are guilty of dividing and segregating our students and our tax dollars. They are anything but democratic, and they are a burden to school districts.

    I hope this resource page does another article that examines all the ways that charter schools are damaging our communities and resegregating our schools. It is also important to point out the high attrition rates of both students and teachers at most charters in California. If one wants to witness innovation, I invite you to public school teachers’ classrooms, where all are still welcome: rich, poor, middle-class, foster home kids, English language learners, neurodiverse, and kids with special ed needs.

    The best thing that could happen to California schools would be to increase tax revenue to be able to recruit and pay for professional expert teachers, small class sizes, and a variety of programs for every kid.

  6. CarolineSF 5 months ago5 months ago

    The claim that charter schools have "more room to experiment with ... innovations" has been part of the charter/"reform" sector's billionaire-funded sales pitch from the beginning. The claim was that charter schools could experiment and then public schools could adopt the successful innovations. In reality, it's really hard to come up with any innovations pioneered in charter schools (except far more freedom to engage in looting, theft, real estate swindles, nepotism, test cheating, and other … Read More

    The claim that charter schools have “more room to experiment with … innovations” has been part of the charter/”reform” sector’s billionaire-funded sales pitch from the beginning. The claim was that charter schools could experiment and then public schools could adopt the successful innovations. In reality, it’s really hard to come up with any innovations pioneered in charter schools (except far more freedom to engage in looting, theft, real estate swindles, nepotism, test cheating, and other corruption and crime).

    It’s also a charter/”reform” sector talking point to claim that the reason teachers’ unions and other critics take issue with charters is that charters aren’t unionized. False. Actually, the main reason teachers’ unions and other critics take issue with charters is that charters drain resources away from public schools, harming public schools and the children in those schools. In addition, charter schools are free to admit only the students with social capital of one kind or another, leaving the most vulnerable and high-need students in public schools — and that’s what they do. That’s another key reason critics take issue with them. (In fact, some teachers’ union members don’t WANT charter teachers in their unions, though that’s complicated.) In addition, the billionaire-funded charter/”reform” sector has devoted massive resources to attacking public schools and the teachers in them, which also harms public schools and the students in them. (See the movies “Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” and “Won’t Back Down” as two examples among years and years and years of propaganda on all fronts.)

    When this article talks about the way charters are authorized, it does a huge disservice to the reader by not mentioning the legal limits on local school boards’ right to reject a charter application. They’re not allowed to take into consideration the reality that a charter would hurt the other schools and students in the district.

    When the article talks about charter schools’ search for space, it also does a huge disservice to the reader by not discussing the battles that ensue when charters try to force (and often succeed in forcing) their way onto existing public schools’ sites, harming the existing school and the students in it, and causing massive divisiveness and conflict. This is a major part of the charter story.

    The biggest piece of the charter school story is that every charter is free to admit only students with social capital — compliant, motivated students with compliant, motivated, supportive families; and in some cases, only students from families who can pay large sums of money or devote large amounts of time to working for or at the school (charter schools are regularly busted for making these things mandatory, or implying that they’re mandatory). It does not help the reader understand charter schools when that’s not made clear.

    Also, it’s not valid to state that charter schools are public schools. Critics describe them as private schools run with public money, and I’ve never heard a solid argument against that view. If there is one, let’s hear it.

  7. Heather Bennett 5 months ago5 months ago

    Stand up for our truly public schools!! Charter schools are a hugely destructive force that put our nation at risk. Please see: https://dianeravitch.net/2017/07/21/randi-weingarten-the-fight-before-us-against-devos-and-privatization/ Randi Weingarten gave a major address to the AFT Teach Conference yesterday, in which she explained why she took Betsy DeVos to Van Wert, Ohio, and she called out the forces of destruction now targeting public schools in America. It is time, she says, to resist. To resist privatization by charters and vouchers; to … Read More

    Stand up for our truly public schools!! Charter schools are a hugely destructive force that put our nation at risk. Please see:

    https://dianeravitch.net/2017/07/21/randi-weingarten-the-fight-before-us-against-devos-and-privatization/

    Randi Weingarten gave a major address to the AFT Teach Conference yesterday, in which she explained why she took Betsy DeVos to Van Wert, Ohio, and she called out the forces of destruction now targeting public schools in America. It is time, she says, to resist. To resist privatization by charters and vouchers; to resist the attacks on the teaching profession; to fight racial segregation; to resist the budget cuts that hurt children. And to stand up proudly for our public schools, the anchor of our communities, governed democratically by elected school boards. [Jeanne Allen, director of the pro-charter, pro-voucher Center for Education Reform, called for Randi’s resignation for drawing a line connecting school choice advocates today with segregationists in the mid-twentieth century.]

  8. Bill Younglove 5 months ago5 months ago

    As with the intent of the original, MN, law, however, just where/when have those “best practices” developed in the charter schools been replicated back in the “failing public schools?” In other words, isn’t it (past) time that charter school advocates put their academic expertise to work helping all children learn?

    Replies

    • Heather Bennett 5 months ago5 months ago

      Thanks Bill! Excellent point!!

  9. Raoul 5 months ago5 months ago

    " . . . most charter schools are run by organizations with their own self-appointed boards." This is my biggest problem with the way charters are presently structured in California. Because the term "non-profit" has such a nice ring to it, few people realize that non-profit organizations can be far less democratic than profit corporations. A non-profit can be set up so the board is self appointed, or appointed by the Pope, or … Read More

    ” . . . most charter schools are run by organizations with their own self-appointed boards.”

    This is my biggest problem with the way charters are presently structured in California. Because the term “non-profit” has such a nice ring to it, few people realize that non-profit organizations can be far less democratic than profit corporations. A non-profit can be set up so the board is self appointed, or appointed by the Pope, or even by Charles Manson for that matter. There is no requirement that parents or the community have any role. A profit corporation, at least, is required by state law to have directors democratically elected by shareholders. So we end up giving boatloads of public money to organizations run by who knows who, with no democracy required.

    Replies

    • Heather Bennett 5 months ago5 months ago

      Correct: We give our public money to privately run schools. This abomination is further extended with Prop 39, something the article’s author completely white washed. Charters also take our public facilities away from our students.
      The charter movement may have begun with good intentions but it is abundantly clear that it is now nothing less than an attack on our entire public school system.