Charter Schools: What You Need to Know

by Tanya Anton | GoMamaGuide.com [Updated from a previous version.]

Now that it’s Charter Season, we want you to be prepared. In this article we’ll cover some basics and a few specifics you should know about charter schools.Charter Draft

First, it bears repeating that California is at the forefront of the charter movement with more students enrolled in charter schools here than anywhere else in the country. There are 23,000 101,060* 199,863* students enrolled in charter schools in Los Angeles County alone, and 49,840* on waitlists. Nearly 1 in every 4 students within LAUSD attend charters, and that number is growing every year.

*updated for the 2016 school year according to CCSA.org  

Charters are tuition-free semi-independent, somewhat autonomous schools operating with public funds, authorized by either the local school district, the county, or the state board of ed. Charters get their name from the lengthy legal document that outlines the many facets of the operation of their charter school – from the vision to curriculum to staffing to governance to fiscal, academic and campus procedures.

Some charters are chains of schools replicated on multiple sites run by large charter management organizations (CMOs), and others are small individual school start-ups launched by an ad-hoc group of parents, educators, visionaries and entrepreneurs with a shared vision of providing an alternative model of education.

All charters in California have to follow federal law, state ed codes, teach grade level content standards, and participate in standardized testing.

In Los Angeles There Are Two Types of Charters

Independent charters have the most autonomy to operate with full flexibility on staff hiring and firing (they don’t typically use the UTLA teachers contract so they are non-union), can make their own decisions in terms of budget, governance, overall school direction and operation, and are unaffected by district budget cuts or policy changes. Unless they are extremely well-endowed and can afford their own building, most independent charters apply for classroom space via Prop 39 and are given a minimum number of classrooms co-located on the side of another LAUSD neighborhood school campus. In recent years this process has been fraught with political infighting and less than transparent negotiations when it comes to which campuses have space, which do not, and which programs get offered which space. The current school board climate has been at times downright hostile to charters, thus severely limiting their ability to operate and serve students, let alone grow to accommodate their waitlists. Highly sought-after charters can sometimes have wait lists in the hundreds each year. 

The other type of charter is the affiliated conversion charter – schools that were a traditional neighborhood school that “went charter” after 51% or more of the staff voted to convert to charter status. More of a hybrid, these charters have some autonomy on teaching, curriculum and textbooks, some budgetary flexibility with monies they get directly from the state, but are bound by UTLA/LAUSD policy on things like teacher contracts (must hire UTLA teachers therefore subject to seniority and bumping rights), and are affected by district decisions such as class size increases, calendar changes, or lateral reductions in specific staff positions and programs. Think of them as a neighborhood school with some autonomy perks. Affiliated charters may have less autonomy than the independent charter, but more importantly they get to keep their facility (building), and must give enrollment priority to those who reside within the neighborhood attendance area. So the only way to assure enrollment, is to reside within the footprint. Many conversion charters are so full of neighborhood kids that few remaining seats ever go up for lottery, and if they do, hundreds of students may apply for them and be waitlisted.

In terms of applying to charters, anyone from any district may apply, and you may apply to as many charters as you like. Enrollment for independent charters is drawn by public lottery, which you can be present for or not. Independent charters give priority enrollment to founding families if it’s a start-up, staff members, and usually siblings of current students. Some charters will also give priority to those who reside within the local school district (LAUSD), a specific nearby school attendance zone, or to those who qualify for the Free/Reduced Lunch program. Affiliated charters must give priority to residents first, then non-residents. Each charter application process and lottery is overseen and run independently by each school site.

Built-in Academic Accountability

Unlike a neighborhood school that can fail year after year and nothing is done about it, charter schools face a renewal process every 4-5 years where in order to continue to stay open they are reviewed and voted on by their authorizing board. They MUST meet state requirements or they can be in jeopardy of being shut down. This can, and has happened to some charter schools.

Many charters (but not all) have had excellent academic results. Some are able to offer smaller class sizes, and a smaller overall student body size which can lead to greater individual attention and student success. Some offer alternative models of education that might fit better for some children than the traditional district model. However, sometimes due to space constraints this is at the expense of other “peripheral programs” or enrichments, such as visual or performing arts, an instrumental music program, PE or sports or outdoor green space, or a dedicated lunchroom or cafeteria, or even a library.

Not all charters outperform neighborhood schools. In fact, most recent numbers show that charters, on average, aren’t performing that much better than district schools. Some are, some aren’t. It really depends on the school.

Charters Offer Alternatives to the Traditional District Model
One thing charter schools do offer is a panoply of educational options, ranging from strictly college-prep academic, to crunchy-granola progressive schools, to language immersions, to STEM-focused (science, tech, engineering, math), to developmental project-based co-constuctivist leanings, to pumped-up traditional schools whose only difference to the garden-variety district model is a nicer demeanor, more enrichments and curricular flexibility. But there are plenty of choices. If the traditional neighborhood school is not meeting the needs of your child, there’s a whole range of charter schools out there to explore.

Prop 39 Co-Locations
Charter schools apply for District space every year via Prop 39 which requires districts to provide classroom space to charter schools. Due to space limitations, many charters are co-located on the side of another district school campus, housed in a set of temporary bungalows, or a side wing of another campus. Sometimes they share facilities, and sometimes charter schools opt for private space and set up in a church, a business park, or even a strip mall. Accordingly, the space limitations can be less than ideal. There might not be a library, or sports field for PE and recess, or an auditorium for assemblies, performances, or graduation, or even a dedicated lunchroom or cafeteria. Sometimes having a (non-union/non-district) charter on the same campus as a traditional district-union school can cause friction and a literal turf war. Sometimes co-locations can work in a collaborative way, but many times (especially of late) the schools like siblings, fight and campaign against each other, politically-speaking, pitting families against one another.

Still, charters are not going away and they provide much-needed options where district schools have failed kids. And, many of them are extremely successful. And, despite allegations otherwise, most LA charters are not-for-profit.

What makes a charter great? Could be an innovative teaching model, collaborative learning, special partnerships, flexible learning environment, enthusiastic teachers, motivated students and a great community of like-minded families. No two charter schools are alike. One must really do one’s research, tour and apply directly at each school site you’re interested in, as there is no one-stop centralized application process that covers all your charter options.

Charter Highlights:
-Can apply to as many as you like
-Apply directly at each school site
-Each school site maintains its own lottery and timeline/deadlines
-Some make you attend a mandatory open house/tour before you can apply
-Some allow you to apply online site unseen
-Conversion charters give priority to residents within the attendance area
-Each charter has its own lottery priorities: founding families, staff, siblings (sometimes)
-Some also give a priority to LAUSD residents, if you qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch program (Title 1), or come from a certain feeder school
-Charters means commuting (no transportation provided)
-No accumulating wait list or points
-Must reapply yearly if you don’t get in

What are the charters in your area? Please consult my color-coded maps on the school finder page of my website. Charters are marked in green.

Or book a consultation with me and together we’ll go over all your charter options.
In-personPhone.

Or check out the California Charter Schools Assoc for more info.

Want to use this article? You can as long as long as you include this complete blurb with it:
 
Tanya Anton is the creator of GoMamaGuide.com helping parents demystify and navigate their public school options in Los Angeles. To read more articles by Tanya or to learn about her Guidebooks, House Chats, Consultations, and Seminars, visit GoMamaGuide.com or email us at GoMama@mac.com.
© 2017 by Tanya Anton, GoMamaGuide.com All Rights Reserved. 
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The Conversion Charter…Trending Now

by Tanya Anton | GoMamaGuide.com

With 6 LAUSD neighborhood schools converting to affiliated charter status last year and 25 more schools converting this year, we ask, is it contagious? A sign of the times?

 Why would your perfectly good neighborhood school convert to affiliated charter status anyway, you ask?

It all comes down to the 3 Fs. Flexibility, Freedom…and Funding.

An affiliated charter is a unique sort of “charter lite” or hybrid model that was created in LAUSD to pacify all parties. While this type of charter doesn’t have the full autonomy an independent charter school has, they do have increased autonomy from the traditional district model.

A typcial LAUSD neighborhood school that converts to an affiliated charter school can keep its existing campus and facilities -no fighting for space or co-locations via Prop 39. They also keep their attendance area -maintaining the feel of a neighborhood school with priority enrollment given to area residents. The UTLA teacher contract and District-paid union positions stay in tact -but with it so does tenure and seniority-based bumping rights. The school gains some limited freedoms from the district – and the feeling of semi-autonomy. Most importantly the school once converted can apply to the state for a block charter grant -direct funds based on enrollment numbers, which can make up some of the budget shortfalls the school sustained as a non-charter.

While still overseen by LAUSD, an affiliated charter creates its own site-based governance system typically made up of parents, staff, and administration, so the decision-making body of the school resides on campus, not downtown. The school also gains flexibility in curricular focus, textbook selection, selecting programs and materials, as well as freedom in deciding how to allocate, manage and spend the funds that come unrestricted from the state.

The district still oversees and controls many policies in an affiliated charter, and when lateral budget cuts are made – when a staff position or program is reduced or eliminate districtwide – affiliated charters are affected. When the district decides to change the calendar and implement “Early Start,” or makes changes to the bell schedule, or the number of instructional days, class size ratios, or changes to the graduation A-G requirements – affiliated charters are affected. So ultimately, it’s a compromise. The District maintains some control, the unions maintain their contracts, and the school site gains some autonomy without going full-out independent charter.

There is money involved, surely, particularly important for schools that have fallen just below the now higher Title 1 (poverty level) school threshold. In fact, the majority of the schools that have converted one by one (or seven by sixteen) to affiliated charter, are schools that have lost their Title 1 status, meaning they have lost their additional federal funding. The loss in federal funds, in additional to the continued onslaught of yearly state and district budget cuts, has been devastating.

For an elementary school in LAUSD, already 48th in the country in per-pupil spending, the Title 1 funding loss can amount to $80-150,000 annually from a school’s operating budget. For a secondary school such as the highly-lauded LACES, the loss from their budget this year was $460,000. For Millikan Middle School, the loss was about $600,000. You can see the kind of fiscal pressure a school is under, and why that charter block grant, not to mention the thought of gaining some autonomy, starts to look not only attractive, but necessary for survival.

Read some commentary on it from School Board member Tamar Galatzan HERE. And KPCC takes a look at the issues HERE.

But what does this mean in terms of trends where predominantly high-performing motivated middle class schools capable of self-governance are converting to charter 25 – 30 at a time? What does it mean for the rest of the district’s schools, where high staff turnover, low parent participation, and unmotivated communities do not, or can not, advocate for their schools?

In California we have more students enrolled in charter schools than anywhere else in the nation. Ten years from now, will the majority of our schools be charters? Will the District be bankrupt? Will we (the people, the policy-makers) make public education a priority, an undeniable human right, a necessary investment in our collective futures, or will it become an obsolete novelty gone the way of social security and pension plans?

In updating my color-coded Valley Elementary school map with all the recent charter conversions, there is a clear green line. The charter line. Schools south of the Ventura Freeway in the foothills, in North Hills, and Granada Hills, see the most conversions. Make no mistake, they’re also the areas with the highest property values.

GoMamaGuide’s Valley Elementary Schools Map.

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Want to use this article? You can as long as long as you include this complete blurb with it:
 
Tanya Anton is the creator of GoMamaGuide.com helping parents demystify and navigate their public school options in Los Angeles. To read more articles by Tanya or to learn about her Guidebooks, House Chats, Consultations, and Seminars, visit GoMamaGuide.com or email us at GoMama@mac.com.
© 2012 by Tanya Anton, GoMamaGuide.com All Rights Reserved.