As voters in Georgia and Washington stamped “approved” on independent charter schools, the state with the highest number of the publicly funded, privately run schools in the United States reached a significant milestone.
In late October the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) announced 109 charter schools opened across California for the 2012-13 school year, surpassing last year's 100 openings and bringing the total to 1,065.
Enrollment increased by an unprecedented 17 percent, or some 70,000 students, bringing the total of California charter students to more than 484,000 since the state began allowing them 20 years ago.
Approximately 2 million students attend charters in 41 states, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Obstacle Course to Success
These milestones are significant, considering the obstacles charters face in the Golden State, said Lance Izumi, education studies director at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento.
"It's very tough to start a new charter school in California and next to impossible to convert a regular public school into a charter school," he says.
Despite California's 2010 Parent Trigger law that allows poorly performing public schools to be converted into charters, teachers' unions and school districts have blocked most attempts at such administrative transformations, he noted, save the Adelanto Elementary School, where a judge recently ordered the conversion to go forward.
"School boards are often owned by teachers unions, and parents have to go through an appeals process—first, to a county board of education and then, if they're turned down, to the State Board of Education," explains Izumi, coauthor of the 2005 book Free to Learn: Lessons from Model Charter Schools.
Izumi says wherever charter schools have been established, they've proven to be "a very cost-effective and efficient way to deliver educational services to kids," spending less money and having more flexibility than traditional public schools.
In January, the California Legislative Analyst's Office released a report indicating the state's direct-funded charter schools received at least 7 percent—or $395 per student— less general purpose funding in 2010-11 than their district counterparts.
Charter schools usually have to pay for facilities out of their operating revenues rather than from local property tax and bond revenues, notes Larry Sand, president of the nonprofit California Teachers Empowerment Network: "that's definitely a savings for taxpayers."
"It ends up costing less per pupil than it would for a traditional public school," he said.
Besides being "extremely resourceful," California's charter schools are "highly successful and generating great results,” said CCSA president Jed Wallace.
CCSA's 2012 charter-school performance review reveals a U-shaped curve.
"There is an over-representation of schools under-performing as to expectations, relatively few schools in the middle, and a strikingly large number of schools on the right ride of the U, way over-performing," Wallace said.
However, he points out low-income charter students last year were five times more likely than their non-charter peers to attend a school in the top-fifth academic performance percentiles.
The association does call on an "authorizer," such as a local school district, to end a school's charter if it's found to consistently underperform, said CCSA spokeswoman Sierra Jenkins: "This reflects the fundamental promise of charter schools in providing more flexibility and autonomy to serve kids in the way they need to be served."
Charter-school demand in California is high, with approximately 10,000 children on waiting lists in Los Angeles, where 40 new charter schools opened in fall 2012.
"Parents want high-quality choices, and our school district and superintendent have been very clear in wanting to work in partnership with them and teachers' unions to serve students," explains José Cole-Gutiérrez, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Charter Schools Division, the country's largest district authorizer. Its 230 charters serve some 110,000 K-12 students.
"We're a district that recognizes the diversity of the city and do not rely a one-size-fits-all model," he says. "We want high-quality options for all students."
Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland .