OP-ED: San Diego Union-Tribune, September 19, 2004

Charter Schools: A Beacon of Hope for California Public Education


Here's an offer to consider, an offer that is helping reinvigorate public education, one public school at a time. Consider that our public school teachers are working harder than ever, but are continually thwarted by an Education Code that stifles teachers' innovation, creativity, and their ability to make a difference for the students they serve. Teachers today are treated more like political footballs than the highly capable professionals they really are. It is no wonder that many are frustrated: today's Education Code has grown thicker than the federal tax code.

But there is plenty of hope afoot; California's promising public charter school movement offers public school teachers the opportunity to design and lead high-powered public schools that are free from many cumbersome rules that hold back public education. This new freedom is leading to improved student achievement.

In 1992, California became the second state in the nation to pass a charter school law as a way of empowering educators and their local communities to create a new type of public school, one that is tailored to the individual needs of the students they serve.

Charter schools retain the best of what public education has to offer: they are free, nonsectarian and open to all students who apply. And rather than being crushed by the litany of stifling regulations, they are held accountable for what matters most: improved student achievement.

Since California passed its charter school law, over 530 public charter schools have opened their doors to serve more than 180,000 students. More than 7,000 public school teachers from Chula Vista to Eureka have joined this thriving movement to either lead a new charter school or to teach at one. After decades of trying to reform public education from within, many of these teachers are now proving that all students can succeed.

When I served as president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation, I witnessed first-hand too many educators who were tired of hearing from a bureaucracy that was comfortable with low expectations. "Some students just can't learn," the system would say. "Many of these kids are poor and come from different backgrounds; you have to have realistic expectations."

Uncomfortable with these excuses, school leaders at more than 80 Los Angeles County public schools have gradually decided to strike out on their own to push for systemic change by creating their own public charter schools. In partnership with their local, largely inner-city communities, these educators are defying conventional wisdom and creating public schools that are closing the achievement gap.

More than 55 public charter schools have opened within San Diego County alone, making it one of California's leaders in transforming public education. While all of these schools are led by committed educators dedicated to improving student achievement, they are all unique in how they get there. Consider some San Diego County examples:

  • Albert Einstein Academy, now housed in Rolando but seeking a larger facility, uses a dual-language immersion program, teaching both German and English with a curriculum based on the International Baccalaureate program. Its vibrant atmosphere has engaged students and parents alike, and it is validated by its high student achievement scores.
  • In the inner-city Barrio Logan neighborhood, the King/Chavez Academy of Excellence charter school has achieved impressive results for its 400 students. With small classes, individualized learning programs, strong teaching, and support from the local community, King/Chavez has more than tripled the student achievement gains made in the broader public school system.
  • Barona Indian Charter School, a newer charter school located on the reservation, is dedicated to closing the achievement gap for its underserved students. Its teaching staff is turning dedication into results: Barona's 125-point jump on the state's Academic Performance Index (API) made it one of the highest improving public schools in all of California.

San Diego's public charter high schools are equally as impressive. In fact, three of the top four performing high schools in San Diego are charter high schools.

  • River Valley Charter School, the top performing public high school in San Diego County, combines instruction in core subjects with student-selected programs that take place off-campus, proving that a small high school with added individual programs can succeed.
  • The teachers at High Tech High, another high-performer, give their students real-world experience by requiring them to complete a semester-long internship with a local business.
  • Perhaps best known is the Preuss Charter School at UC San Diego, the first public charter high school to be located on a college campus. Preuss specifically serves underprivileged, largely minority students who will be the first in their families to attend college. Its teachers have created a school with rigorous academics, a longer school day, and a school year one month longer than other San Diego schools. All these attributes have resulted in some of the highest test scores in San Diego. Preuss' first graduating class of 55 students is headed to some of the most prestigious four-year universities in the nation.

These individual success stories aside, charter schools are becoming more and more accepted as vital to the state's efforts to reform public education.

Recent studies by major universities have shown that charter schools are improving student achievement at a faster rate than the broader public school system, especially on behalf of low-income students. According to this year's state-sponsored evaluation of charter schools by California's nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, charter schools "are meeting original legislative intent: expanding families' choices, encouraging parental involvement, increasing teacher satisfaction, and raising academic achievement, particularly for certain groups of disadvantaged students." And, charter schools are achieving these results with fewer resources.

A recent report by the American Federation of Teachers, prominently covered in The New York Times, attempted to show that nationwide, charter school performance is lagging behind that of regular public schools. But the AFT's own numbers actually show that California's charter schools are doing better in reading as well as in math than the broader public school system. And that's before adjusting for demographics.

These achievement gains have come even while California's charter schools are educating a higher percentage of lower-income students and those with learning problems than regular public schools. When a new charter school opens, it's not the satisfied parents that enroll their children into another option. It's the parents whose children are being shortchanged who find charter schools so attractive.

The AFT simply lumped in other states that just started opening charter schools within the last couple of years. California's charter school movement, which has been up and running for over a decade, has had more time to work for these students. Charter schools in California that have been around for five years or more, like many of San Diego's thriving schools, are significantly outperforming California's broader public school system. Given time, these other states may erase their achievement gaps as well.

For these parents whose underserved children attend these innovative public schools, charter schools have provided them with a lifeboat to better achievement. They have empowered many parents who might not be able to afford private school with a public school choice. If a regular public school is not meeting the needs of a particular student, then parents today can enroll their child into a public charter school that may better meet their needs.

But today, the success of charter schools isn't just benefiting a few underserved students. As this movement grows, charter schools are sharing their successes with the broader public school system so that all students benefit.

In an effort to emulate charter schools' successes, school district administrations are loosening up the strings and red tape on teachers in traditional public schools.

In Oakland, for example, a group of small charter schools is emerging as a beacon of hope within a school district plagued by financial problems. In response, the district administration is changing two of its low performing large and impersonal public schools into eight small public school campuses, offering more flexibility for its teachers and a more personal approach to public schooling.

In San Francisco, where 10 percent of high school students are enrolled in charter high schools, the school district responded by creating its "Dream Schools" program. The innovative program gives three of the district's lowest-performing public schools some of the attributes of its charter schools, including more site-based control for their teaching staffs, longer school days, and a more rigorous college-prep curriculum.

This fall, San Diego Unified is following the lead of High Tech High and the Preuss charter schools by boldly converting three of its larger public schools into more than a dozen "charter-like" academies. As the Union-Tribune recently reported, "The idea is to give students a personalized education that appeals to their interests, fosters strong bonds with teachers, and presents less opportunity to slip through the cracks."

With California's increasingly diverse student population, a one-size-fits-all system of public education no longer meets the needs of all of our students, or the teachers who serve them. But California's public charter schools are quickly demonstrating the power of allowing public school teachers to make and act on decisions at the local level that are in the best interest of their students. The charter school movement is defying a culture of low expectations and is effectively proving to be our most promising path to genuine reform of our system of public education. Moreover, it is showing that empowering teachers helps students succeed.

Young is president and chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association. She formerly was board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Birth of a Charter School

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate independently within the public school system. They allow teachers and community groups to create their own public schools, giving them flexibility to decide their own curricula, staffing, and budgets, with the goal of improving student achievement. This fall, a total of 537 public charter schools are in operation in California, serving approximately 180,000 students.

How a Charter School Is Formed

Recruit a team: No one can start a charter school alone. Many charter schools are started by parents, teachers, and community leaders. The process from planning to opening the school usually takes about 18 months. Charter school founders need expertise in many areas, particularly in curriculum and instruction.

Develop a plan: The plan for the school must include its mission and vision. The plan also must include how the development process will be financed, the educational focus, enrollment and staffing levels, and intentions on facilities.

Petition process: Applicants must meet the state's 16 "required elements" for starting a charter school. The California Department of Education provides information at http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cs/re/csabout.asp. A charter is the contract that the community group enters into with a local school district.

Approval: Applicants work with their local school district for approval. Interested parents and teachers sign a petition indicating their desire to enroll their students or teach at the new school. Applicants often seek support from community leaders, the authorizing district, and elected school board members.

Opening the school: Before the opening, successful applicants must create a school governing board, recruit students, set up an instructional program, and secure a facility. Charter schools by law must accept every student who applies. If a charter school reaches enrollment capacity, then it must offer a lottery when accepting new students.

Workshops titled How to Start a Charter School are held periodically. Information on workshops or starting a charter school is available from the California Charter Schools Association: (866) 415-2272.

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