7 questions — and answers — about charter schools in California

What are charter schools? How are they authorized? And how do they differ from traditional public schools?

We’ve compiled a list of frequently asked questions — and answers — about charter schools with the help of OCDE’s Charter Schools Unit.

What is a charter school?

Teacher with students in the classroom

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 receive state funding and are not private schools. They are tuition-free, non-sectarian and open to any student, regardless of his or her place of residence, as long as seats are available. Independent study charter schools are open to students within Orange County and contiguous counties, which include Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego.

How long have charter schools been around?

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

As 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. As of 2022-23, more than 1,300 charter schools and seven all-charter districts operate in California, serving more than 685,000 students, according to the California Department of Education.

Advocates have touted charter schools as a benefit to school choice and incubators for school innovation. But some critics have expressed concern that the growth of charter schools — including those operated by charter management organizations — has diverted funding from traditional public schools.

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 to encourage innovative instructional strategies, charter schools are exempt from many of the laws that govern school districts, except where specifically noted in California’s Education Code.

Charter schools must, however, 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 teachers based on the same credentialing requirements as traditional public schools.

How many charter schools are in Orange County?

According to data from the California Department of Education, there were 39 charter schools in Orange County in 2022-23, serving 22,582 students. Twenty-three of those were approved by the five-member Orange County Board of Education. Others were authorized by their local districts. 

The Orange County Board of Education plays a significant role in the establishment of charter schools in Orange County, hearing 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 county board 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 at www.ocde.us/glcp/CharterSchools.

How is accountability monitored?

When a charter petition is submitted for a new school, petitioners must specifically define their instructional program, academic goals, operations, governance structure and 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.

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 assigned to 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.

As spelled out in California’s Education Code, OCDE annually conducts at least one charter school site visit per year and reviews the educational program, 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 race or ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability, sexual orientation or any other characteristic applicable to public schools.