Fiscal, Demographic, and Performance Data on California’s K-12 Schools

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Charter Schools in California

What began as a small experiment in 1993 - when 29 charter schools opened - has grown into a significant alternative system within California's K-12 public schools, with more than 1,200 schools serving more than 600,000 students.

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What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school governed by a contract (“charter”) between the school’s operators and a chartering authority. The chartering authority, also known as the authorizing local educational agency (LEA), can be a school district, county office of education, or the State Board of Education (SBE).

Although charter schools generally are more independent of their chartering authorities than regular public schools are of their districts, and are exempt from most of the state’s regulations, they must participate in state testing and comply with federal laws. They are also required to develop Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that they must submit to their authorizers. But unlike school districts, which must get their LCAPs approved by their county office of education, charter schools do not need outside approval.

However, authorizing agencies can hold charter schools accountable for such things as student achievement, the management and financial viability of the school, and complying with state reporting requirements. A school’s charter describes such things as the school’s instructional approach, employer/employee relations, and predicted student outcomes. The charter must be renewed at least every five years and can be revoked if the school fails to comply with the contract terms or to meet academic objectives. The school’s LCAP can be used as part of this evaluation.

California law also requires that a public charter school be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations, and prohibits the conversion of a private school to a charter school. Public charter schools may not charge tuition and may not discriminate against any pupil on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability.

How are charter schools created?

Charter schools may be newly established (a start-up) or converted from an existing school (a conversion). They are usually created and run by teachers, parents, a community-based group, or a charter management organization (CMO). CMOs typically provide a unifying vision and some degree of operational coordination for multiple charter schools.

The charter is granted for up to five years by a school district, county office of education, or the State Board of Education and may be renewed for periods of five years.

How are charter schools funded?

Charter schools can be "locally funded," meaning that they receive their funding through their authorizing district or county office, or "direct-funded," in which case they receive funding directly from the state. Whether a charter is direct-funded or locally funded can be important because data for direct-funded charter schools are sometimes treated differently from that of locally funded charters. For example, the cohort graduation and dropout rates of direct-funded charters are not included in the graduation/dropout data for the authorizing district. (Note, locally funded and direct-funded charters are sometimes referred to as “dependent” and “independent” charters, respectively. But because these terms are not found in statute, this meaning is used inconsistently, and the California Department of Education (CDE) discourages their use.)

Direct-funded and SBE-authorized charter schools are considered local educational agencies, but unlike school districts, they do not have to report all the financial data required by the state’s Standardized Account Code Structure (SACS) system and may report the data in different formats. Therefore, even though these schools do report their financial data to the the California Department of Education, Ed-Data currently does not have financial reports for charter schools. Charter school financial data can be found on the CDE website at: http://www.cde.ca.gov/ds/fd/fd/

Under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the state equalized funding for charter schools and school districts. Like school districts, charter schools receive a base grant for each student enrolled, plus supplemental grants for students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals or are English learners, homeless, or in foster care — and an additional concentration grant if these students make up more than 55% of the enrollment. However, concentration grant funding is based on whichever is lower: (1) the charter school's actual proportion of these students, or (2) the proportion of these students in the districts where the charter school is located.

Charter schools can also secure support for facilities in a number of ways. Proposition 39, passed in 2000, requires school districts to provide charter schools that serve 80 or more in-district students with “sufficient” facilities that are “furnished and equipped” and reasonably close to where the charter school wishes to locate. State bond funds can be used for construction of charter schools. The school bond passed in November 2016 allocates $500 million for charter schools. In addition, the Charter School Facility Grant Program provides reimbursement for a percentage of rent and leasing costs for charters that serve or are located in areas with large percentages of students from low-income families.

How do charters report data?

Charter schools are also required to report their data through the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), but can choose to report their student data through their authorizing LEA. These schools are expected to review their CALPADS reports to ensure the counts are correct, but are typically not the ones who certify the data in CALPADS. That is done by the superintendent or designee of the authorizing LEA. However, some charters — known as independently reporting charters — report data directly to CALPADS and are 100% responsible for submitting, reconciling, and certifying all of their CALPADS data. Note, however, that independently reporting charters may still be locally funded.

Common terms related to charter schools

As you move through the Ed-Data site, you may encounter the following terms:

Authorizing LEA: The authorizing LEA refers to the local educational agency that has authorized the charter. Charters may be authorized by a school district, county office of education, or the State Board of Education.

Start-up charter: A start-up charter school is a new school that has never existed or served students before.

Conversion charter: A conversion charter school is a pre-existing traditional school that converts to a charter.

Direct-funded charter: A charter school that elects to receive funding directly from the state. These charters are sometimes referred to as “independent” charters. (But this term is not found in statute and could be confused with an "independently reporting" charter, which pertains to how the school reports data and not to its funding mode.)

Locally funded charter: A charter school that elects to receive funding through its authorizing LEA. Locally funded charter schools are sometimes referred to as “dependent” charters. (But this term is not found in statute and could be confusing.)

Independently reporting charter: A charter school that reports its data directly into the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS). Note that a charter that independently reports its CALPADS data may not report other data (e.g., financial data) independently, and may still be a locally funded charter school.