Charter School History and Policy
California’s Charter Schools Act of 1992 covered a wide range of issues, such as the charter petitioning and approval process, the duration of a charter, criteria for revoking a charter, funding policies, and a state-level evaluation requirement. Yet it was also relatively brief and nonspecific.
This lack of specificity was in part by design because many issues have to be worked out locally between charter-granting entities and charter schools. Since the first California charter school opened in 1993, the Legislature has continued to expand and fine-tune its policy direction. The accumulation of this body of law and policy has resulted in a fairly sophisticated set of rules for how charters are authorized, operated, governed, and staffed.
On this page:
- Charter schools come of age in California
- California charter schools start with a petition
- Charters face legal and accountability requirements
- Governance requirements are sparse
- Lawmakers address facilities issues
Since 1993, when California’s first charter school opened, the state’s charter segment has grown from a handful of schools to about 700 schools in 2008–09. These schools are present in one quarter of the state’s school districts and serve 4% of California public school students. Although affecting only a small percentage of the state’s students, charter schools raise complex and provocative education policy questions for California’s public school system as a whole.
Charter schools were initially conceived as laboratories for reform, meant to instill choice and competition in the public school system. Thus they are generally freed from most regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Students are not assigned to charter schools but choose to attend them, with money following the student. This leads to competition with other public schools and, in some cases, hostility. In California, charter schools can be closed if they fail to meet their promises in regard to student outcomes—measured by the same state standards-based tests taken by other public school students. Charter schools in California are usually able to hire their own teachers and other staff, but teachers of college-preparatory and core classes must meet the same credentialing requirements as other public school teachers. (In traditional public schools, the district office often handles personnel decisions.)
Nonprofit and for-profit organizations, universities, and other agencies may operate these schools. A charter school runs independently under a performance agreement that spells out its educational program and goals and is largely funded on a per-pupil basis. A school district or county office of education (COE) is usually the chartering agency, though in limited circumstances the State Board of Education (SBE) can play that role. Some charters begin as public schools that convert to charter status (called “conversion” schools), and others are “start-up” schools. Charter schools must be nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory, with enrollment by lottery in cases where the demand for pupil slots exceeds the supply.
The first official step in creating a charter school in California is the development and submission of a charter petition. Anyone can circulate a petition to start a charter school, which is then submitted to a chartering agency.
Petitioners must gather signatures from parents of at least half the students expected to enroll in the school in its first year, or half the teachers expected to work there. For a conversion petition to be considered, at least half of the permanent-status teachers at the existing school must have signed.
Charter petitions must contain 16 specific elements that describe not only the school’s structure and its expectations for student performance, but also items such as “right of return” policies for employees. A charter petition must include a description of the right of any employee who is leaving a school district to work in a charter school and to return to the district after leaving the charter school. (Petitions must address the issue but do not have to guarantee anything specific.) Further, if a charter school participates in either the California teachers’ or the classified employees’ retirement systems, all eligible employees must be covered.
Charter school employees have a right, if they choose, to join a union and bargain collectively. The charter petition must declare whether the school or the chartering entity will be the employer for collective bargaining purposes.
The charter petition must also describe the procedures for resolving disputes between the school and the chartering authority and procedures for closing the school. The agency considering the petition must also see a description of the proposed operation and potential effects of the school, including the facilities to be used, how administrative services are to be provided, and how the school could affect the civil liability of the chartering agency.
School boards are expected to grant the charter unless they make written findings that the petitioners have proposed an unsound education program, are demonstrably unlikely to implement the charter, or do not meet specific petition requirements. If a district denies a charter, petitioners can go directly to the county board of education. If the county board denies an original charter request or an appeal, then petitioners can take their case to the State Board of Education (SBE).
Charter schools are approved for up to five years, and renewal periods are another five years. At any time, a chartering authority, such as a school district, can revoke a charter for any of the following reasons:
- A material violation of the charter;
- Failure to meet or pursue the pupil outcomes described in the petition;
- Violation of generally accepted accounting standards of fiscal management; and
- Violations of the law.
However, unless the violation constitutes a severe and imminent threat to the health or safety of students, charter operators are given a chance to remedy the situation. The SBE can revoke a charter if it finds fiscal mismanagement.
Because they are supported by tax dollars, charter schools are subject to federal and state constitutional requirements related to public education as well as laws that generally apply to governmental bodies, such as contracting laws. This includes legal protections to students with disabilities and. Employment laws, such as teachers’ due process rights, also apply.
Charter schools must also offer at least the minimum number of annual instructional minutes required of other public schools, and must maintain written attendance records. And they must comply with state requirements for independent study if they offer it, which means a charter school can only enroll students who live in the county where the school was authorized or an adjacent county.
In 2002, policymakers passed Assembly Bill 1994 to restrict charter schools’ ability to operate multiple sites and to try to force them to locate their operations completely within the boundaries of their chartering authority. (However, the State Board of Education can approve a charter because it serves a special function and a statewide constituency. Such schools—for example online schools—are known as “statewide benefit” charters.) In addition, under AB 1994 the county superintendent of schools has the authority to monitor the operation of local charter schools.
Legislators have also prohibited charter schools approved after Jan. 1, 2003, from serving grade levels not served by their authorizing agency unless the charter school serves all the grades offered by that agency. So, for example, a group wishing to open a new charter high school serving grades 9–12 could not petition a K–8 elementary district, but a team trying to start a K–12 charter could secure a charter from that district.
Beginning in 2003–04, charter schools must at the end of each school year submit a financial statement to their chartering authority, the Office of the State Controller, and the California Department of Education (CDE).
Charter schools are also held accountable for the performance of their students on statewide standards tests (see) and are ranked according to the Academic Performance Index ( ), with a few exceptions. They must also make adequate yearly progress ( ) under the federal No Child Left Behind Act ( ). Those receiving Title I funding under NCLB face a series of interventions if they repeatedly fail to make AYP. Like their counterparts in traditional public high schools, high school students who attend charter schools also have to pass the in order to graduate.
Since January 2005, a charter school that has operated for four years or more must meet specified academic performance benchmarks to qualify for renewal. A charter school must show at least one of the following: (1) that it met its growth targets on the API; (2) that it ranked above the 30th percentile statewide or in the group of 100 schools to which it is most similar in terms of student demographics; (3) that it qualified for the state’s alternative accountability system; or (4) that its chartering authority determined that its performance is comparable to that of district schools its students would otherwise attend.
Although a charter school petition must describe the school’s governance structure, the school is not required to have any particular type of governing body or board per se. However, school authorities must consult regularly with parents and teachers about the school’s educational programs. The relatively few requirements for a governance structure have led to a variety of approaches. A June 2008 EdSource study found that the performance criteria have not prevented the renewal of any charter schools.
Districts or other agencies that grant charter authority are required to oversee charter schools and are allowed to charge for this oversight. However, chartering agencies have asserted that the maximum charge does not cover the true cost of the work involved.
Locating and paying for facilities has proved challenging for many charter schools—especially start-ups. As a result, state and federal lawmakers have taken steps to ease the problem:
- As of November 2003, school districts must make adequate facilities available to charter schools operating in the district.
- A portion of statewide school bonds— in 2002 and in 2004—were set aside for new construction of charter school facilities. To qualify for funding, a charter school must prove that it is financially sound.
- The Charter School Facility Grant Program (Senate Bill 740) helps charter schools with rent or lease expenses. To be eligible, a charter school must have at least 70% of its pupils eligible for free/reduced-price meals or be located in an attendance area with the same kind of student population.
- The federal Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools Facilities program provides competitive grants to organizations that are willing to guarantee loans and leases that charter schools pursue.