In the 2013-14 school year, nearly 300,000 more students entered public charter schools, 600 more charters opened, and total charter enrollment increased 13 percent to account for more than 2.5 million children.
Now home to 1,130 charter schools, California led the nation in openings, with 104 new charters established in 2013-2014.
“Charter schools are growing, very simply because there’s a need for them,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. “Too many traditional K-12s aren’t doing a good job.”
Attracting Innovation, Adaptability
Parent demand has met education entrepreneurship under one of the nation’s oldest charter laws to foster a flourishing charter environment in the state.
“Some of the most dynamic entrepreneurs opening charter schools are coming from California,” said Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The state has had charter schools for some time, so opportunities for innovation abound, she said.
“Teachers like [charters] because they get to try new things; they’re not as restricted as they are in traditional schools, not burdened by the codes and the union regulations,” Sand said.
Alternative, tech-friendly modes of learning are widely available in California charters.
“Charter schools are leading the way in providing blended-learning education, which combines online education with traditional bricks-and-mortar classrooms, and virtual education, where most teaching and learning is done online through the Internet,” said Lance Izumi, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. “Since online education is a large wave of the future, charters provide parents and students with the innovative educational services that they demand.”
Potential for Improvement, Bipartisan Support
Despite the huge growth in charters, state laws have “huge room for improvement” by examining what other states have done to allow for good charter schools, Rees said.
One good policy that helps charters grow is to let people hoping to open one appeal a local school board’s decision to turn them down, Izumi said.
“Charter organizers can appeal to the county board of education and then to the California State Board of Education,” Izumi said. “For example, even though the Los Angeles school board turned down the renewal of two high-performing charters, the organizers of those two charters can appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Education and then to the State Board. It is expected that the charter petitions will be renewed on appeal.”
Widespread, bipartisan support for charters contrasts with opposition from teachers unions, he said.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown championed charters early in his political career and has vetoed numerous anti-charter-school bills.
“State laws and restrictive union collective bargaining agreements have made the delivery of high-quality educational services very difficult for regular public schools,” Izumi said. “Charter schools are not subject to most of these restrictions, so they can better deliver high-quality education to students, which is why there is a great demand by parents for more charters.”
Parent Demand Pivotal
Charter school enrollment has doubled approximately every five or six years in California since they first arrived. It can be difficult for lawmakers to push for charters, Rees said, so parent demand has really driven the increase.
“At each stage in the process, people have wondered how it could possibly continue.… The sector itself develops the capacity for growth, and the general public notices more and more,” said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association.
Parents drive demand for charters because it is their 50,000 children sitting on waiting lists to enter the schools, Sand said.
“The level of satisfaction at charter schools is very high,” Wallace said. “The number one thing driving public opinion [is]…word of mouth, people talking about their experiences. Virtually all Californians now know somebody who has a child in a charter school, and that’s turning into a base of support that’s growing every year.”
Focusing on Quality
Nationwide, 200 charters closed during this school year, including 39 in California. Rees sees this as positive, because it means low-performing charters cannot continue to take students and tax dollars.
Replicating great charter schools and closing unsuccessful ones is a key to growth, she said.
“We’re not doing growth for growth’s sake,” Wallace said. “We want to make sure that we’re serving students very well. We’ve seen the academic performance of students over the past few years improve significantly, [and] we reduced by about a third the percentage of charter schools that are significantly underperforming.”
Speed Bumps to Growth
Despite the popularity of these public schools, “teacher unions will continue to fight charters by getting their allies in the state legislature to introduce anti-charter legislation,” Izumi said.
In 2013, for example, a California bill would have required all school employees, including bus drivers and janitors, to support a school’s effort to become a charter. Brown vetoed the union-supported bill.
“The unions have also worked hard to put their allies on local school boards in order to deny charter school petitions,” Izumi noted. “The more charters that are established in California, the more threatened the unions will feel and the more money and lobbying they will use to stop charter creation.”
“Policymakers are going to be in a bind because the people seem to want [charters]… yet the good old ‘entrenched special interests’ don’t always like them,” Sand said. “School boards don’t, and teachers’ unions certainly don’t.… The legislature is going to be caught in the middle.”
Image by Henry de Saussure Copeland.