Policy Brief

Charter Schools in California

Classroom
Authors
Martin West
Harvard University
Margaret (Macke) Raymond
Stanford University
Kirsten Slungaard Mumma
Harvard University
Published
Summary

When California became the second state to authorize charter schools in 1992, the state’s system for authorization, oversight, and renewal of charter schools was in many ways a bold experiment. The concept was new, and the impacts on both student learning and the public school system writ large were unknown.

That first law authorized the creation of 100 charter schools, a modest beginning compared to the charter school sector today. In 2017-18, California had more than 1,200 charter schools serving 620,000 students, about one out of every 10 of the state’s public school students.

Charter schools in California are often a source of controversy, enjoying broad support in some instances and sharp criticism in others. In many cases, opinions about charter schools are based on localized experiences, such as the success of a specific group of students and schools or the financial impact charter schools have had on a local school district.

The Getting Down to Facts II project was unable to evaluate the overall effect of charter schools on the state’s traditional public schools, leaving some important questions unanswered. However, this brief does summarize evidence of how well charter schools and their students perform academically. The brief also examines the state’s long-standing process for charter school authorization and compares it to other states and to research regarding what works well to ensure that the authorization process supports charter school quality.

KEY FINDINGS:

  • In terms of academic growth over time, charter schools do significantly better than district schools in urban areas and for traditionally lower performing student groups.
  • Charter school authorization in California is highly decentralized, with little accountability for the districts and county offices that act as authorizers.
  • The small scale and modest funding of many California authorizers limits their ability to develop oversight capacity consistent with emerging best practices.
  • California’s charter school policies do not specify a distinct renewal process and set a low bar for charter renewal.