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9 questions and answers about LA’s independent charter schools

Craig Clough | September 13, 2016

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This is part of a series looking at the various types of schools in LA Unified. Read more on chartersmagnet schools and affiliated charters

Question: What is an independent charter school?

Answer: Independent charter schools at LA Unified are publicly financed but independently run educational institutions. Charters are authorized and overseen by a local school district, county school district or the state. The schools must come before their authorizing board every five years for renewal, and their authorizers make sure the school’s finances and educational approach are in order.

Charter schools are tuition free and are open to all students who apply. By law they may not discriminate for enrollment based on academic performance, race, economic background or special education status. Some have waiting lists and enrollment is based on a lottery.

Q: How many independent charter schools are there at LA Unified?

A: At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year there were 228 independent charter schools authorized by LA Unified serving over 107,000 students, or roughly 16 percent of the student body. LA Unified has the most charter schools and students of any district in the nation. In the 2014-15 school year, there were an estimated 41,830 students on charter waiting lists at LA Unified, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

In the state of California, there were 1,228 independent charter schools in the 2015-16 school year, and roughly 3 percent of them were for-profit, according to CCSA. No charters at LA Unified are for-profit.

Q: Do charter school students perform better than students at traditional schools?

A: On the 2015 and 2016 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) standardized tests, independent charters outperformed the district in all key categories.

On the 2015 tests, 40 percent of independent charter students met or exceeded the English language arts (ELA) test standard, compared to 33 percent of district students. On the math test, 27 percent of charter students met of exceeded the standard, compared to 25 percent of district students. On the 2016 tests, 46 percent of charter students met or exceeded the ELA standard, compared to 39 percent for traditional schools, and 30 percent of charter students met or exceeded the math standard, compared to 28 percent at district schools.

Q: What about other metrics, like graduation rates and A-G completion?

A: Charters also outpace the district in graduation rates and completion of A-G courses, which are a series of required classes that must be passed with a C or better in order to be accepted into California’s public universities.

According to the California Charter Schools Association, charter schools had a cohort graduation rate of 84 percent in 2014-15, compared to 72 percent for the district. And A-G completion with a C or better for charters was 78 percent in 2013-14, compared to 28 percent for the district. However, the district has predicted large gains in A-G completion last school year due in part to a $15 million credit recovery program, and preliminary data show the graduation rate will be 75 percent.

Q: Are there demographic differences that should be taken into consideration when comparing these numbers?

A: Yes. In some areas, charters and the district match up closely on demographics, and in some areas they do not.

One key difference is in special education. Recent numbers show that in the 2015-16 school year, special education made up 11.04 percent of enrollment at charters and 11.96 percent at the district after years of gains by charters. But there is a key difference in that the district still has a larger number of students with moderate to severe disabilities, who are more costly to educate. The district’s enrollment of students with moderate to severe disabilities in 2015-16 was 4.72 percent, compared to 2.1 percent for charters.

On race and key subgroups, independent charters and the district match up closely. See this map of the location of charter schools by poverty level (courtesy EdDataZone) and this map showing charter locations in neighborhoods by race.

The below graphics outline how charters and district schools match up demographically:

Q: Why are some people and unions against charter schools?

A: The majority of LA Unified’s independent charter schools do not have union labor, so teachers unions tend to oppose their existence. Charter schools also receive their funding directly from the state, so as the number of charter schools in the district has grown, the operating budget of LA Unified has shrunk, causing some school board members and educational leaders to see charters as a threat to the stability of public education.

Q: What is an affiliated charter? Is that the same as an independent charter?

A: No, they are not the same. An affiliated charter is still directly overseen by the district, and the district controls its budget. But the “affiliated” status gives school leaders more flexibility. Click here to learn more.

Q: What is a charter management organization (CMO)?

A: A CMO is an organization that operates multiple charter schools, while a freestanding charter school is a standalone school not directly associated with any other school. According to CCSA, at LA Unified in the 2015-16 school year, there were 170 independent charters at LA Unified that were part of a CMO and 51 that were freestanding. Click here to see a map from EdDataZone for details on where CMOs and freestanding schools are located.

Q: Are charters growing at LA Unified?

A: Yes, charters are growing, and more have been added to the district every year since the Charter School Act of 1992 was passed. This graphic charts their growth:

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