Nine questions (and answers) about public charter schools

kids in classroom hands raisedYou may have read about charter schools in the news recently, and perhaps you’ve found yourself wondering, “What exactly are charter schools, and how do they differ from public or private schools?”

Well, we’re here to help. We recently caught up with Kelly Gaughran, OCDE’s administrator for charter schools, with a list of the most frequently asked questions about charter schools.

Let’s start at the beginning. What is a charter school?

A charter school is a public school with specific goals and operating procedures detailed in an agreement, or “charter,” between the sponsoring board – this is usually an existing local public school board or a county board of education – and the charter organizer. Charter schools are non-sectarian, tuition-free and open to any student who wishes to attend, regardless of place of residence. They are not private schools.

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

Yes and no. Charter schools are generally 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 laws protecting civil rights, student health and safety, as well as state laws about suspension and expulsion, and federal special education laws.

Are charter schools required to take part in state testing?

Yes. Charter school pupils are required to participate in all statewide assessments that are applicable to pupils in traditional public schools, including the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), the California High School Exit Exam and physical fitness tests.

How are charter schools funded?

In California, public school funding is designed to follow the student, which means the dollars go to the public school or a charter school. Charter schools receive funding based on average student daily attendance, and they’re also entitled to federal funding, including money tied to Title I or special education. Public charter schools may not charge tuition.

Are charter school teachers credentialed?

In California, charter schools are required to hire credentialed teachers for core and college preparatory subjects.

How is accountability monitored?

When a team of school developers submits their charter petition, they must define their academic goals. Charter schools are generally reviewed for renewal every five years to make sure they’re producing acceptable academic results and are running in a fiscally and operationally responsible manner.

Do charter schools serve students with special needs and English language learners?

Yes. Charter schools are required to enroll and serve students with disabilities just like traditional public schools, and in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws. Students attending charter schools have the right to receive all programs and services on their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and each school must provide a program for English learners, such as ESL, bilingual education or dual-language immersion.

What is the application process for charter schools?

Each charter school has its own application process for students to enroll. If a charter school receives more enrollment applications than it has spots available, it is required by law to hold a public random drawing, usually referred to as a lottery. The remaining students 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, gender or disability.

How can I find a charter school in my area?

The California Department of Education has a Charter Schools Division website with an interactive map and a searchable database.