5.5 Charter Schools
Charter schools are public schools with loosely-defined attendance areas. Charter schools are associated with (and usually overseen by) a public school district or county board of education; anyone who lives within the sponsoring district may attend. If there are not enough seats available, charter schools use a lottery process to govern admissions, a process made famous in the movie Waiting for Superman.
Charter schools operate under a contract (a “charter”) that obligates them to provide specific services and to achieve specific results. If the school fails to deliver, the charter is revoked.
In return for these risks, charter schools operate under reduced regulation compared to other public schools. For example, charter schools are not bound by laws about class sizes, hours of operation and the like. Charter schools are also free to employ teachers without union representation. About two-thirds of California charter schools are not unionized.
From the establishment of the first charter schools in California in the early 1990s, enrollment grew quickly to more than 4% of California’s student body in 2010. (Data and graph courtesy of EdSource.)
Partly in response to charter schools, districts have increasingly incorporated parent preference as a factor in the determination of school assignment for ordinary schools. In doing so, they are softening or discarding rigid attendance boundaries and implementing “school choice” systems that include more and more of their schools.
Charter school advocates put forward two main theories for how charter schools can improve educational outcomes broadly. First, they argue that charter schools are more likely than ordinary schools to drive change because they are less bound by red tape.
Second, they argue that offering families a choice for their children’s education creates a market for success. If the school down the street doesn’t measure up, it makes sense for that school to lose enrollment.
In practice, charter school results are mixed, and advocates on all sides find facts to support their point of view. In 2009, EdSource published a rigorous evaluation of overall charter school results. It concluded that the performance spread of charter schools is broadly similar to that of district schools. There are some great charter schools – and also some terrible ones, and also quite a lot of ordinary ones. Those who hoped that a charter school movement would quickly catalyze astounding results on a widespread basis have had to moderate their hopes.
Charter schools have become a very important part of the dialogue about school change and school turnarounds. Not all charter schools are created from scratch, and an increasing number of charter schools are created through “conversion” from ordinary schools. In 2010, California legislation empowered parents of students in schools with very low test scores to force conversion to charter status by a petition of 51% of the parents.
This “parent trigger” policy was spearheaded by parents frustrated with underperforming schools in Los Angeles Unified. The largest charter school organization in the area, Green Dot Schools, was important to the development of the parent trigger policy.
California’s taxes pay for the education of California’s children. Whether a child enrolls in a public district school or a public charter school, funding follows the child. A family’s choice about where that child will attend school, therefore, is a matter of financial consequence. When families choose not to enroll their children in a district school, the district has less money to hire teachers, run programs, and support administrative costs.
Supporters of charter schools argue that competitive pressure is not a bad thing, and that no one should mourn the closure of an ineffective school. Opponents counter that this argument rings hollow if the new school is no better than the old one, and that the work of shrinking or closing district schools is a distraction from the real work of educating students. Better, they argue, to improve the schools we have than to roll the dice that a new school will be better.
Is it any surprise that proposals to establish or support charter schools are usually contentious? School districts generally oppose charter school formation, and teacher unions almost invariably do so. Union opposition to charter schools can be extraordinarily strong. In 2010 the Oakland Educators Association withheld its support for a local ballot measure to provide funding for K-12 education in Oakland. The measure would have benefited children in charter schools as well as district schools. Lacking union support, it failed, forcing layoffs, furlough days and wage cuts.