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What is a Charter School?

What are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are driving change across the nation.  They are the most vibrant force in education today.  Charter schools are independent public schools, designed and operated by educators, parents, and community leaders.  They are sponsored in California by school districts and county boards of education that allow them to operate free from the bureaucratic and regulatory red tape that often hinders public schools.  Charter schools design and deliver programs tailored to educational excellence.  Because they are schools of choice (no one is forced to attend), they are held to the highest level of accountability.


As a public school, a charter school is open to all who wish to attend regardless of race, religion, or academic ability, and paid for with tax dollars.  Charter schools can be granted a five year extension upon successful renewal with the sponsoring agency.  All charter schools are public schools. The charter law prohibits the conversion of a private school to a charter school.

Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor and the local school board to produce positive academic results and adhere to their contract.  The basic concept of charter schools is that they are free to exercise increased flexibility in return for the accountability of academic results, acceptable fiscal practices and to the sponsoring agency.



Charter schools provide opportunities for better students-centered education.  They provide the chance for communities to create the greatest range of educational choices for their children. 


Charter school operators have the opportunity and the incentive to create schools that provide new and better services to students.  Charters, bound only by the high standards they have set for themselves, inspire the rest of the public school system to work harder and be more responsive to the needs of children.

Charter schools operate from three basic principles:

1.                  Accountability 
Charter schools are held accountable for how well they educate children in a safe and responsible environment, not for compliance with district and state regulations.  They are judged on how well they meet the student achievement goals established by their charter, and how well they manage the fiscal and operational responsibilities entrusted to them.  Charter schools must, and do, operate lawfully and responsibly, with the highest regard for educational excellence.  If they fail to deliver, they are closed down, unlike conventional public schools.

2.                  Innovations
 Parents, teachers, community groups, organizations, and individuals interested in creating a better educational environment for children can each start charter schools.  Local and state school boards, colleges and universities, and others interested in fostering innovation and excellence in schools sponsor them.  Students choose to attend, and teachers choose to teach at charter schools.

 3.                  Autonomy 
Charter schools are freed from much of the traditional bureaucracy and regulations that divert some of a school district’s resources toward compliance rather than excellence.  Educators are freed to focus on reaching high academic standards for their students.



Charter schools in California are required to participate in the statewide assessment test, called the STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) program. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor -usually a state or local school board- to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability.  Recent studies have shown that charter schools are performing as well and in some cases better than the broader public school system. In addition, charter schools operating for five years or more score higher than the broader public school system.


California’s Charter School Act of 1992 established charter schools as an option for parents, students, teachers, and community members to design self-governing schools established to meet the needs of their community.


 Under law, the public elementary and secondary schools operate under the governance of school districts and county offices of education.  This law established a procedure for the creation of a limited number of charter schools, which would receive public funding but would not be subject to the laws generally governing school districts.


 The charter school vision is eloquently described in the Charter School Legislation, Senate Bill 1448, sponsored by then Senator Gary Hart.  The intent of the California charter school law is primarily to improve student learning and to:

·     Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning opportunities for pupils identified as academically low achieving.

·     Encourage the use of different innovative teaching methods.

·     Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning at the school site.

·     Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities available within the school system.

·     Hold the schools accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes, and provide those schools with a methodology of rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.

·     Provide vigorous competition within the traditional public school system to stimulate continual improvements.


The charter school movement has roots in a number of other reforms ideas; from alternative schools, site-based management schools, public school choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment.  The term charter may have originated when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or charters by the governing boards to explore new approaches.  Albert Shanker, long time president of the American Federation of Teachers, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval.  In the late 1980’s Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them charters.  Some of them were schools of choice.


In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suite in 1992.  By 1995, 19 additional states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2000 that number increased to 36 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.  Charter schools are one of the fasted growing innovations in education, enjoying broad bi-partisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education.  President Clinton supported them, calling in his 1997 State of the Union Address for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2000 and delivering remarks for the 1999 Charter Schools National Conference.


There are currently 574 public charter schools serving approximately 212,000 students in the state of California. There are more than 700,000 students nationwide attending 3,000 charter schools. The number of students attending charter schools is increasing at a rate of about 15 percent a year in the United States.



(California Charter Schools Association, 2003)