Charter schools across the United States are proliferating and expanding at a record pace, with the trend particularly pronounced in California and Los Angeles County.
This past fall, the number of students served by charter schools jumped by 275,000 nationwide - the largest one-year increase since the movement's inception 20 years ago, according to a report released this week by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The number of charter schools nationwide rose by 381.
California led the nation in one-year growth, increasing its school count by 81 and its number of students by a whopping 17 percent. Los Angeles County led the state, adding 33 schools.
"It's challenging to start a brand-new school even in the best of times," said Sierra Jenkins, director of communications with the California Charter Schools Association. "It shows how excited parents are about the options."
But critics locally and nationwide fear it is all happening too fast - and with too little oversight. They cite studies showing that students in charter schools do not perform better than their peers in traditional public schools and claim that charter schools exacerbate racial segregation.
"Increasingly, the proliferation of charter school chains is undermining public schools across America, draining them of students and resources," said Diane Ravitch, the nation's leading critic of charter schools, in an email to the Los Angeles News Group.
For better or worse, the surge is on. Spurring it along in many parts of the country is the Obama administration, which, as part of its Race to the Top initiative, has dangled federal dollars as an incentive for states to ease the process of creating charter schools.
California didn't qualify for Race to the Top funding, but the legislation is part of the high-profile milieu that has made charter schools a media phenomenon of late. This includes the state's 2010 parent-trigger laws that allow parents to convert underperforming schools into charter schools via petition and a spate of documentaries about charter schools, such as "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery," both released in 2010.
"In our polling over the past couple years, awareness and support is up," Jenkins said. "When we look at those polls, it's like, wow. You usually don't see a year-to-year jump in awareness of that many percentage points. We ask: What has happened in the past couple years to make that jump happen?"
California has long been a particularly friendly state for charter schools. In 1992, the year after Minnesota became the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing for their creation, California became the second. (In November, the state of Washington became the 42nd state to legalize charter schools.)
Now, California lays claim to 1,063 of the nation's 6,000 charter schools. One in 13 of all of California's public-school students attends a charter school.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has more students in charter schools than any other U.S. district. About 110,000 of its youngsters are so enrolled - or about one of every six kids districtwide.
The expansion of the movement in LAUSD has been so rapid, it's difficult to even track how many charters are operating in the 700-square-mile district. The California Charter Schools Association puts the total at 241, while LAUSD officials say there are 228, including those run by independent operators and campuses that have converted from traditional schools.
That explosive growth has raised concerns among members of the LAUSD board, who are responsible for approving, renewing and rejecting charter applications.
This week, LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan voiced some misgivings as the board considered a slew of charter applications.
"What it comes down to is that the criteria for rejecting a new charter or for not renewing a charter need to evolve," she said Wednesday. "We have seen school after school after school that we have discomfort with approving, but we have no flexibility to deny them. This has to be revisited by the state Legislature."
The charter movement's soaring popularity can make it a politically dangerous entity for elected officials to criticize.
Last fall, LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer sought to impose a "voluntary moratorium" on new charter applications to give district officials time to develop a strategic plan for overseeing the schools.
His plan failed, as thousands of parents demonstrated outside LAUSD headquarters, protesting what they saw as a challenge to their right to choose the appropriate school for their child.
Similar politics played out recently in San Bernardino County.
The former president of the Adelanto Elementary School District board, critical of the parent-trigger petition process there, lost his bid for re-election in November.
Carlos Mendoza was at the center of much of the battle over the future of Desert Trails Elementary, which made history last week by becoming the first school in the United States to be converted into a charter school via the parent-trigger law.
Mendoza has a mixed view of charter schools: His daughter is going to be attending one, but he doesn't believe they're the cure for what ails California's public schools.
"The best students are going to flock away from traditional public schools and go to charter schools," Mendoza said. "And charter schools will keep those students, leaving students that are struggling in the traditional public schools. ... That's basically the reason their test scores are better. As a parent, I'm not going to complain about that."
Even as its momentum hits a fever pitch, the charter movement has taken a few PR hits in recent years.
In 2010, a cheating scandal led to the demise of Crescendo schools, a cluster of six charter schools in the Los Angeles region that were ordered shut down.
In June, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report concluding that charter schools tend to enroll fewer students with disabilities than traditional public schools.
But the biggest blow might have come from a 2009 report from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) that remains the largest study to date on the academic performance of charter school students. Widely cited as "the CREDO study," the report concluded 83 percent of the charter schools observed nationwide provided learning opportunities that were no better than or worse than those from traditional public schools.
(In November, CREDO released a study showing that charter schools in New Jersey tend to outperform traditional schools.)
Parents seem undeterred. Matthew Wunder, executive director of the Da Vinci charter schools in Hawthorne, said that despite the studies and the academic debates, parent demand is booming - and that's what matters most.
"While I think it's an important conversation to have, there's this practical side, one that says: `You guys keep debating - you smart people in think tanks. But here's what I want for my kids,"' he said. "People vote with their feet."
Criticisms notwithstanding, charter schools are often seen as the bleeding edge of education reform. For example, the Obama administration has long held up Green Dot Public Schools - a cluster of charter schools in Los Angeles County - as an exemplar. In 2009, two years after Green Dot's successful takeover of Locke High in Watts, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan began meeting regularly with Green Dot's founder to discuss how to replicate the success elsewhere.
Charter schools often shirk seniority-based pay for teachers in favor of what is widely referred to as merit-based pay. They are more likely to tie test scores to teacher performance evaluations, and enjoy greater flexibility in the hiring and firing of teachers.
Surprisingly, one thing that hasn't directly contributed to the charter boom is the parent-trigger law. Besides Adelanto, the trigger has been pulled only two other times since the Parent Empowerment law was enacted by the state Legislature in January 2010.
One occurred just this week, when a group of parents at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles submitted a petition, marking the first time the trigger has been pulled in LAUSD.
Meanwhile, although the total number of charter schools is on the rise, it isn't uncommon for them to close down. While 109 charter schools opened across California, 28 closed down - leaving a net total of 81 new schools.
Two of the closures happened in Long Beach. Colegio New City high school and Constellation Middle School both closed following low enrollment and financial problems. Constellation was Long Beach's oldest charter and shuttered halfway through the school year after running out of funding.
New City K-8, a school of about 500 students on Long Beach Boulevard, was in danger of losing its charter last year due to concerns over the school's financial and academic struggles. The school, however, reached an agreement with the Long Beach Unified School District and is now working to correct its deficiencies.
In any case, charter schools and traditional schools need not be in opposition, charter advocates say.
"Charter schools can and should be the research-and-development arm for traditional public schools," said Wunder of Da Vinci schools in Hawthorne. "So it's not a competitive thing. We're a division that can move a little quicker and adjust a little faster. ... All kids can benefit from the things we're learning."
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Staff writers Barbara Jones, Beau Yarbrough and Kelly Puente contributed to this report.