Six questions (and answers) about charter schools in California

In 1992, California lawmakers passed the Charter Schools Act, making our state the second in the nation behind Minnesota to enact charter school legislation. 

Teacher with students in the classroomAs a state-level experiment designed to encourage innovation, the law initially capped the number of charter schools at 100, but that limit was eased in the years that followed. Nearly 25 years later, more than 1,230 charter schools operate in California, serving more than 581,000 students, according to the California Charter School Association.

So what are charter schools, and how do they differ from traditional public or private schools? The OCDE Newsroom recently reached out to a handful of experts within the Orange County Department of Education to get answers to a few frequently asked questions.

What is a charter school?

This is a good place to start. A charter school is a public school with specific goals and operating procedures detailed in an agreement, or charter, between the authorizing board – this is usually a local school district board or a county board of education – and the charter operator. Charter schools are not private schools; they are tuition-free, non-sectarian and open to any student, regardless of his or her place of residence.

Do charter schools have to follow the same laws as traditional public schools?

Yes and no. Because the intent of the Charter Schools Act was to expand options for parents and encourage innovative instructional strategies, charter schools are exempt from most of the laws that govern school districts, except where specifically noted in California’s Education Code.

That said, charter schools must follow all laws protecting civil rights, student health and safety, as well as state laws regarding uniform complaint procedures and federal special education laws. In California, charter schools must also take part in the same statewide assessments as traditional public school campuses, and they are required to hire credentialed teachers for core and college preparatory subjects.

How many charter schools are in Orange County?

According to data from the California Department of Education, there are 28 charter schools in Orange County. Many were authorized by their local districts; 11 were approved by the five-member Orange County Board of Education.

The county board plays a significant role in the establishment of charter schools in Orange County. For starters, the board hears appeals when charter school petitions are denied by the governing boards of their local districts. Moreover, a charter petition may be submitted directly to the Orange County Board of Education for a proposed charter school with locations spanning multiple districts, assuming it offers instructional services not generally provided by the Orange County Department of Education. More information about countywide charter schools can be found here.

How is accountability monitored?

Any time a new school is proposed, the stakes are high and accountability is critical. So when a team of school developers submits a charter petition, they must specifically define their academic goals as well as their finances. Once approved, charter schools are generally reviewed for renewal every five years to make sure they’re producing acceptable academic results and running in a fiscally and operationally responsible manner. There are also provisions to conduct reviews if complaints are lodged.

What role does the Orange County Department of Education play?

When a charter school is approved by the Orange County Board of Education, oversight requirements are conducted by the Orange County superintendent of schools — that’s currently Dr. Al Mijares — and the staff of the Orange County Department of Education. OCDE has a Charter Schools Unit that works with each charter school’s administration and staff to monitor performance in accordance with board policy, applicable state and federal laws, and the school’s charter.

Per California’s Education Code, OCDE annually conducts at least one charter school site visit per year and reviews the educational program and ongoing assessment, facilities, fiscal operations, governance, personnel and student services. OCDE also investigates complaints in accordance with Education Code section 47604.4.

What does the enrollment process look like for a charter school?

Each charter school has its own application process for students to enroll, consistent with the Charter Schools Act. If a charter school receives more enrollment applications than it has spots available, it’s required by law to publicly hold a random drawing, and the remaining students may go on a waitlist and can be enrolled as space permits. Charter schools may not discriminate against any pupil on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, disability or any other characteristic applicable to public schools.