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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How Are California's Charter Schools Measuring Up?

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia

Many people think of public charter schools as a way to increase student achievement and improve our public school system. However, many others believe charters divert resources from traditional public schools and don't meet up to accountability measures. These opposing views often lead to friction among people who actually have much in common: a genuine concern for children and the national right to high-quality public education.

What do we really know about public charter schools and their level of success? California has some recent data that hopefully will help advise the policy for charter schools' facilities, financial impact, and governance.

Let me give you some background on California's public charter schools. The first charter opened in 1993; since that time, the number has grown steadily each year. The most recent data, from 2005-06, reveals that 574 charter schools now operate in California, serving about 3 percent of our children. In addition, one-fourth of California's 1,034 school districts and county offices of education have at least one charter school, and 8 school districts have converted all their schools into charters.

In June 2007, EdSource -- a respected, nonpartisan educational-research organization -- published its third annual analysis, "California's Charter Schools: Measuring Their Performance." Though measuring and comparing school performance is always complicated, the Edsource report offers an impartial analysis that must be considered in the policy debate. Any analysis has its limitations, but what I especially appreciate about the report is the care researchers paid to controlling for the measurable student characteristics most strongly related to school performance.

I leave it to you to read and evaluate the report, but here are two points the researchers found especially intriguing:

  • As a whole, charter elementary schools had lower Academic Performance Index (API) scores than traditional public elementary schools; however, charter high schools generally scored better than their traditional counterparts. Furthermore, charter middle schools outperformed noncharters on all measures by statistically significant margins, and this strong performance has been stable for several years.
  • Classroom-based charters and schools run by charter-management organizations showed significantly stronger performances.

Additional concerns that need to be addressed include

  • school facilities, which remain a central issue for charter schools and local education agencies (LEAs).
  • charter schools' financial impact on the LEA's operating funds, and charter governance issues.
  • possible revisions to recent state statutes based on lessons learned.

Do you have experience with charter schools or an opinion you'd like to share? I'd like to hear from you.

Diane Demee-Benoit

Former Director of Outreach at Edutopia
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