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What Is A Charter School, Exactly? A Field Guide

L.A. County is home to 374 charter schools, state data shows.

A package of major changes to California's charter school laws is advancing through the state legislature — changes that are making pro-charter advocates very, very nervous.

"They certainly represent an existential threat to charter schools," said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association.

But teachers unions see it the other way — that charter schools pose an existential threat to traditional, district-run schools — and after strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, their efforts to enact new limits on the growth of charters have gained traction.

If enacted, Senate Bill 756 would prevent any new charter schools from opening until 2022. In the other chamber, three Assembly bills — AB 1505, 1506 and 1507 — propose new hurdles to opening charter schools, and grant regulators new ways to shut down existing ones. AB 1505 passed last week.

Statewide, one out of every 10 students in public schools is enrolled in a charter school; what happens to this legislation will directly impact their education.

But to understand the debate about how California's charter school laws might change, it's worth taking a step back to understand how they work now. So we put together this reference guide:

FIRST, A QUICK GLOSSARY OF IMPORTANT TERMS:

  • Charter schools: Tuition-free, publicly funded schools that are run not by school districts, but instead by non-profit organizations; each charter school operator has its own unelected board.
  • Authorizers: The government entity charged with overseeing a charter school's academic and financial performance. Every charter school first needs the permission of an authorizer in order to open its doors, and must renew that operating authority every few years. In most cases, the authorizer is the elected board of the school district in which the charter school is located. But in some cases, the authorizer is the county's Office of Education or the State Board of Education.
  • Petition: An application to open a new charter school. If the authorizer approves the petition, the founders often get permission to operate the charter school for five years. If an authorizer rejects the prospective founders' petition, the applicant can appeal to a higher level — first to the county's Office of Education, then to the State Board of Education.
  • Renewal: After a charter school has been open, the school's leaders must file for permission to remain open — a "renewal" of their charter. Renewals are often granted for terms of between three and five years. As with petitions, charter applicants can appeal any rejections to the county or state level. If they don't secure a renewal, the school can't continue to receive public money.

LET'S STEP BACK — HOW BIG IS CALIFORNIA'S CHARTER SCHOOL SECTOR?

Big. There are more than 1,300 charter schools in California, enrolling a total of 628,000 children. Roughly one-quarter of the state's charter schools are located in L.A. County; the L.A. Unified School District alone is home to more than 200.

WHY DO CHARTER SCHOOLS EXIST?

Charter schools were conceived as the test kitchens of the public education system. The original notion was that charters would launch small-scale experiments — and that larger, less-nimble districts could learn from charters and take their experiments to scale.

To that end, charters are exempt from many of the state laws that govern traditional public schools. Leaders of a charter school have more freedom to try new methods of teaching, select the materials they wish to use, and more easily hire (or fire) teachers, who at most charter schools are not unionized.

With this freedom comes responsibility. Every few years, charter schools must apply for permission to remain open. If leaders can't prove that their charter school's "experiment" is working — that kids are learning or the school's finances are sustainable — their authorizers can shut them down.

In some cases, the model works as California's 1992 state charter law intends. But critics say there's much about the model that isn't working. They say charter schools are no longer a small-scale experiment, but a massive, parallel school system that threatens the existing, district-run system — and authorizers are ill-equipped to keep up with the demands of regulating it.

ARE CHARTER SCHOOLS PART OF A SCHOOL DISTRICT?

Yes and no.

It's true that any student who lives in the authorizing district can apply to attend, with state law mandating charters to hold a lottery if they have more applicants than available seats. In L.A. Unified, district leaders often magnanimously say that charter school students are LAUSD students, too.

And sometimes, charter students basically are district students. Roughly one-quarter of California's charter schools — including 50 schools that LAUSD calls "affiliated" charters — operate as a district-run school. These "charters in name only," as they're sometimes called, enjoy only some of the same legal freedoms. (They're colored blue on the map above.)

But in most cases, the cold reality is that school districts lose out on the state funding that follows each student who enrolls in an "independent" charter school. ("Independent" or "direct-funded" charters are colored orange on the map above.)

Though adding up how much money districts lose when students enroll in charters is not a straightforward exercise, this funding loss is central to what makes charter schools so controversial.

WHO CAN SHUT DOWN A CHARTER SCHOOL?

Authorizers have the legal authority to shut down a charter school, either by non-renewal or revocation of their charter (a more extreme measure).

Legally, when reviewing petitions for new charters, authorizers are only allowed to consider whether the school's academic, financial and governance plans are sound. When considering renewal applications for existing schools, authorizers can only consider the charter school's academic and financial track record.

Critics say this leaves local school districts with very little ability to say "no" to a petition or renewal application — even in circumstances where saying "no" might be the best option for everyone.

For example, critics say an authorizer can't deny a petition to open a new charter school in a neighborhood where there are already a half-dozen other charter schools.

Charter school advocates have said none of these limits prevent school districts from shutting down charter schools that are wasting taxpayer money or where children aren't learning — but that these limits are necessary to protect charter schools from the political whims of elected boards.

Still, shutdowns are not unprecedented. In the past two decades, state data shows that 135 charter schools have closed in L.A. County. The most recent was Summit Preparatory Charter School in South Los Angeles.