Charter school enrollment in California declined this year for the first time after three decades of steady, and in some years, staggering growth. Does this signify a pandemic blip, retrenchment or an inflection point for charter schools?
Not since the first charter school opened in San Carlos, south of San Francisco, in 1994, has charter school enrollment fallen year over year.
This was to have been a year of school recovery, but instead has been turbulent, buffeted by waves of Covid infections. Charter school leaders say they have been consumed with keeping schools open, and have put off thinking about growing again. They and districts face the same headwinds: an immediate teacher and staff shortage, rising chronic absences, huge questions about enrollment next year and long-term projections of a double-digit decline statewide over the next decade.
But charter schools say they also face potential legal roadblocks, anti-charter antagonism and financial burdens, including uncertainty over how much funding they’ll receive this year under a state budget that left them vulnerable to funding cuts. All of that gives them pause about expanding.
“If I’m a charter management organization, and I’m struggling with 30% turnover in teachers, fluctuating enrollment, and I’m dedicating resources that I don’t even have any idea if I’m going to be reimbursed by the state, why would I be thinking about fighting a political fight to get a charter petition into LAUSD?” said Myrna Castrejón, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.
About 1 in 9 of California’s 5.9 million public school students attend a charter school, which are public schools freed from some regulations imposed on traditional school districts. Independent, nonprofit boards run most of them, with some under the control of school districts that set them up.
In 2020-21, the first full year of the pandemic, total enrollment statewide fell 4.4% while charter school enrollment actually increased 3.4%. But this year, enrollment in TK-12 school districts and charter schools both fell 1.8%: 110,000 students in district schools, 12,600 in charter schools, as measured as of Census Day last October.
Exclude all virtual charter schools, a small subset of charter schools, and enrollment in classroom-based charter schools, the most common form, fell 2.9%, exceeding district schools’ one-year decline, according to an EdSource analysis.
The parallel enrollment drop wasn’t coincidental. Covid-19 has been a storm that has upended district and charter schools alike, said Castrejón. The pandemic “supercharged these broader demographic trends – the crashing birth rate, the negative rate of immigration, the transfer (of families) into rural and suburban areas, the political dissatisfaction in red areas where people are leaving for Texas, Arizona or Idaho,” she said.
And, she said, Covid has produced a “multiverse” of education options that affect schools and districts: Enrollment in private schools is up, as are parents’ applications for homeschooling. There are emerging forms like small, private homeschools in pods and through church co-ops that are hard to quantify. And there are hybrid charter schools combining independent study at home with classroom learning at schools like The Classical Academies in northern San Diego County.
Charter school enrollment declined the most this year in the areas that for decades have been the strongholds of charter schools: the Bay Area, down 3.6%, Los Angeles County and the San Diego area, both off 3.1%. Those, too, are the regions with the largest drops in overall school enrollment.
“From 2003 through 2017, we worked with our philanthropic partners to encourage and fund charters that targeted neighborhoods with crowded, academically failing schools,” said Caprice Young, the founding head of the charter schools association who led two Los Angeles-based groups of charter schools and consults for education nonprofits and schools.
“Those neighborhoods are disproportionately inner-city and facilities-based, so the larger demographic trends impact the charter movement more than the traditional schools,” Young said, referring to many charter schools’ concentration in low-income neighborhoods with declining enrollment.
For two decades, that strategy worked in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Led by charter management organizations – including Aspire, Kipp, Alliance College-Ready Schools in Los Angeles and Rocketship – charter schools grew by a dozen to more than three dozen schools annually before leveling out in 2018 with 188 schools in the Bay Area and 373 in Los Angeles County, mainly Los Angeles Unified. It is the nation’s second-largest school district and contains the nation’s largest concentration of charter schools.
But in Los Angeles Unified, charter enrollment has mushroomed as enrollment in the district’s schools steadily fell, creating tensions over shared facilities and epic election battles to establish a pro- or anti-charter majority on the seven-member district board. In 2009-2010, there were 61,000 charter school students and 618,000 students in district schools. By last year, charter school enrollment had more than doubled, to its peak of 114,431, while district enrollment had fallen to 456,964. In LAUSD, 1 in 5 public school students attended a charter.
Then Covid took its toll. This year, charter school enrollment in Los Angeles fell 1.7%, compared with 5.7% in district schools.
This year, school districts are being held financially harmless for a second year, because of Covid’s havoc on drops in enrollment and attendance. They are receiving the pre-pandemic level of funding. But charter schools are not; they are returning to funding based on the average daily attendance, as in the past. And with attendance down anywhere from 8% to 10% this year, they’re anticipating a commensurate cut in funding.
Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, said charter schools had no notice last June that the budget legislation extending financial protection to districts wouldn’t apply to them. Charter leaders are hoping to get this fixed retroactively in May when Gov. Gavin Newsom delivers his revised budget plan for 2022-23.
“If we don’t get it fixed, it will be an enormous hit for charter schools with a psychological impact: Can you afford to take growth risks when you just lost a big chunk or all of your budget reserves?” he said.
In addition, the Legislature has put a three-year moratorium on new nonclassroom-based charter schools, while it figures out how to distinguish legitimate from poor-performing programs and frauds, like the former A3 charter chain in San Diego County.
Topping off worries is a new but largely untried charter governance and accountability law, Assembly Bill 1505, which was passed into law in September 2019, six months before Covid shut down all schools and cut short plans for new charter schools. Newsom sold it as a reasonable compromise on charter school growth. Premack and other critics see it as a signal for abuse. Its most contested provision allows school boards to consider a new charter school petition’s financial impact on a district as a factor in approval or denial.
Castrejón points to the law’s guardrails and said it’s too soon to judge. Premack said that in an era of declining enrollment, districts will use fiscal impact as a cudgel.
Beth Hunkapiller, a founder of the San Carlos Learning Center and now the chair of Aspire Public Schools’ board of trustees, foresees problems. “Yes, the table is tilted by AB 1505. It wrote into law the presumption that the existence of charter schools has fiscal impact on district schools.”
Follow the migration
Outside the Bay Area and Los Angeles, there is room to grow, and there are alternatives to the traditional brick-and-mortar charter schools. Since 2000, except for last year and the Great Recession of 2009, school enrollment has grown steadily in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which make up the Inland Empire; the Central Valley; and Sacramento and surrounding cities.
“California’s urban centers have failed to build housing, so people are fleeing inland and to other states to raise families,” Young observed.
The number of charter schools in the Inland Empire has increased from 45 in 2009 to 81 this year. In the northern San Joaquin Valley, which includes Stockton, the number has more than doubled, from 45 to 92. The Sacramento region, north to the Oregon border, has jumped from 110 to 167.
Rocketship Public Schools, an elementary charter school network with most of its 13 California schools in low-income San Jose neighborhoods, saw an overall enrollment plunge of 5.5%, the first drop since it started in 2008. But its newest two schools, in Concord and in Antioch, to the east in Contra Costa County, grew significantly this year.
Aspire Public Schools, with nearly 17,000 students, now has 16 of its 36 schools in Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton, more than in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It has received approvals for two new schools in Stockton, and, after drawn-out negotiations, the ability to expand existing schools in new facilities in Sacramento and Stockton.
But Tony Solina, Aspire’s Central Valley superintendent, is not optimistic, in the current environment, that new schools could be approved. Aspire will identify schools with long waiting lists as areas to expand, but there’s an anti-charter sentiment even in districts that were favorably inclined to support charter schools.
“School board members are under pressure to deny charters,” Solina said.
What do families want?
Population shifts have led some foundations like the Silicon Schools Fund, which underwrites startup and other costs of innovative schools serving low-income students, to revise their plans.
“We’re now supporting schools in Bakersfield, Stockton, Fresno, Sacramento, which is very different than how our foundation looked 10 years ago,” said Brian Greenberg, Silicon Schools CEO. “Once we opened our minds to look, we found the truth, which is that talent is equally distributed.”
Greenberg said that the emergence from Covid offers a moment of opportunity.
“What if teachers want a little more flexibility of how they use time during the day? What if parents want some more flexibility of how kids are coming to school or what they’re doing during the school day?” he asked. “We’re much more interested in finding more innovative solutions that work better for kids and families.”
He pointed to two charter schools, one that opened this year in Fresno, and another that will open in 2023-24 in Sacramento, as examples of new models grounded in community support. The former is Golden Charter Academy, a TK-8 school founded by retired NFL defensive back Robert Golden, who has returned to his hometown of Fresno. The school is partnering with Fresno Chaffee Zoo, with plans to relocate next to it, so that students can learn firsthand about wildlife habitat and the environment.
The other, which received approval this month as a countywide charter in Sacramento County, will be a high school early college program built around a single industry sector, construction trades. With partnerships with Caltrans, the building trades union and some of the largest building contractors in Sacramento, Capital College & Career Academy will start with career exploration and foundational academic courses the first two years, with opportunities as juniors and seniors for internships, dual enrollment courses in community colleges and courses at Sacramento State.
Students will have credits toward a four-year degree in engineering or design or training to enter an apprenticeship in a building trade, said founder Kevin Dobson, who’s currently a principal at Natomas Charter School. The new school “will bridge the gap between K to 12 and post-secondary options. This really grew out of frustration that kids were really going unserved, often being forced to choose college or career at the expense of the other.”
Rose Braxton says her fifth grader, who has a learning disability, is looking forward to enrolling four years from now. “I don’t see her struggle with hands-on learning. She likes building things and is a more visual learner,” she said. “They have community support. Kevin has a heart for reaching youth.”
Don Shalvey has a long view on charter schools, as a former teacher and principal, school district superintendent, founder and CEO of Aspire Public Schools and former deputy director overseeing education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now he’s the executive director of San Joaquin A+, a nonprofit organization in the San Joaquin Valley, where he has lived for 50 years, seeding efforts to prepare students for a changing workplace. (Shalvey is one of 13 members of EdSource’s board of directors, who have no influence or oversight on content. Editorial decisions remain under the sole control of the EdSource newsroom.)
Like Greenberg, he agrees that families moving east into the Central Valley will insist on new school models, including pod schools, independent study programs and schools with flexible schedules.
The “crazy notion of war between charters and districts” is tangential to them, he said, and “distorts that parents expect schools to provide a brighter future for kids.”
San Joaquin A+ supports the Valley Robotics Academy, an innovative school in Lodi Unified that partners with the agriculture industry to train students in complex technical, mechanical and engineering skills that students will need to excel. And San Joaquin A+ works with charter schools and county offices of education.
“In the 1990s and early 2000s, charter schools were small schools, personalized and safe. That’s what parents wanted,” Shalvey said. Aspire identified neighborhoods where Black and Latino students were underserved and “did the common thing uncommonly well,” preparing students for college on the same dollar as district schools.
“That’s still important but not the singular thing a school district should do,” he said. “Some charter management organizations must change their model; the menu for school choice is no longer as narrow as it was.”
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