Charter Schools: California's Education Reform 'Power tool.'(Special Section on Charter Schools)

Article excerpt

Charter schools in California have shown that they can work within and outside the traditional K-12 system, drawing on what works and discarding what doesn't, Mr. Premack reports. A remarkably diverse state now sports remarkably diverse collection of more than 100 awarded charters.

What would happen if we threw restrictive laws and regulations out the window; gave teachers, parents, and community groups the power to create new schools; and held the creators accountable for the results? Now beginning their fourth year of operations, California's pioneering charter schools are beginning to demonstrate their innovative power. A remarkable range of schools has been started by a diverse group of school developers and leaders. Because of the state's broad and powerful charter legislation, which allows charter schools to function both within and outside of the traditional K-12 district structure, California's charter schools are not simply providing innovative approaches to education. They are also beginning to press the rest of the public K-12 system to rethink, change, and improve its practices.

Numbers, Size, Location, and Demographics

To date, more than 100 charters - including one districtwide charter - have been granted by California school boards. Some 62 charters were open and running in the 1994-95 school year, serving more than 26,000 students. Eighty-nine were operating during the 1995-96 school year, serving 36,000 students. Though the schools and their students represent a small slice of the state's public K-12 education system, which comprises 7,000 schools and 5.3 million students, California now has more charter schools and more students attending them than any other state. Demand for additional charters remains strong.

The charter schools are spread across the state in urban, suburban, and rural locations. Both large and small districts - ranging from the massive 600,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District (currently with six charters, including one multi-site "charter complex") to the tiny 331-student West Park Elementary School District in Fresno County - have granted charters. The size of the charter schools also varies, ranging from 24 students to more than 1,400. Several charter schools focus on special needs populations, including high school dropouts, adjudicated youths, language-minority students, and chemically dependent youths. Charter school students' racial and ethnic backgrounds largely reflect the state's overall student demographic makeup.

The charter school option has proved popular with traditionally underserved populations. San Diego's Urban League has collaborated with the Johnson Elementary School to convert the school to charter status as part of a strategy to significantly upgrade the academic achievement of San Diego's African American students. The new Accelerated Charter School uses an academically rigorous curriculum to reach its African American and Latino students in South Central Los Angeles. And two charters are opening this fall to focus on the needs of Native American students.

Legal and Organizational Status

More so than any other charter state, California has been able to leverage its charter legislation both to create new schools and to catalyze change at existing ones. More than half of California's charter schools were preexisting public schools that "converted" to charter status. A growing share are "from-scratch" schools that did riot exist prior to the granting of their charters.

The from-scratch schools tend to be more autonomous and often form as independent legal and fiscal entities. Conversion schools tend to remain closely aligned with their sponsors and to rely on the district for most centralized services. A few conversion schools have moved away from their sponsoring districts to become self-sufficient. One such school, the celebrated Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles, took control over virtually all of its management and operations and ended its first fiscal year with $1 million in the bank. …