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Report: California is 15th friendliest state for charter schools

Matt Barnum | March 11, 2016

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A group of children sit on the floor cross legged, listening to the teacher read a story.

As educators from around the state head to Long Beach next week for the 23rd annual California Charter Schools Conference, California is holding steady in its friendliness to charter schools, says a January report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a pro-charter advocacy group that releases an annual study of state-level policies.

The survey ranked 43 charter laws — the 42 states that allow charter schools plus the District of Columbia — in regards to how successfully they encourage charter expansion, autonomy and accountability. As has been the case in recent years, California ranked near the top of the list.

Five takeaways — and one important caveat — from the report on the state of California’s charter schools:

1. California has held steady, remaining slightly above average in its friendliness to charter schools.

NAPCS ranks California’s charter laws as 15th friendliest in the nation. This represents a slight decline from 2015 when the state was ranked 11th, but the report is quick to point out that the slide came from other states gaining ground, not because California’s laws have become less supportive of charters.

2. One in 12 students in California attend charter schools.

About 8 percent of California students now attend charter schools — above the national mark of 5.8 percent. As of the 2014-2015 school year, the state has nearly 1,200 charter schools operating today, by far the most in the country — though this statistic is mostly a reflection of California’s large population.

3. California has a cap on charter schools, but it’s not restricting growth.

NAPCS opposes state caps on the number of charter schools, and thus gives full points to states with no such limitations. California gets substantial credit, however, because although it does have a cap, charters still have “ample room to grow.” Specifically, California began with a charter cap of 250 in 1998, but by statute the ceiling increases by 100 schools each year. The current limit is 1,950 charter schools; there are just under 1,200 schools operating in California presently. The number of charters is California has more than quadrupled since 1999.

4. California gets extra points for allowing virtual charters — but that might not be a good thing.

NAPCS awards points to states that allow a “variety” of charter schools, including start-ups, conversions — in which a district school is turned over to a charter operator — and online schools, in which students receive some or all of their instruction via computer.

But according to a recent study, online charter schools do much worse than traditional public schools, and California’s virtual schools are no exception (the results were particularly bad for student achievement in reading). According to data from 2009-2010, about one in five California charters were virtual schools.

5. California does not require charter teachers to participate in collective bargaining agreements.

NAPCS credits states for not requiring that charter school teachers be unionized and participate in collective bargaining. In 2009-2010, only about 15% of California charter schools were unionized. Recent controversy has erupted as L.A.’s Alliance College-Ready Public Schools chain has aggressively fought efforts to unionize its teaching staff. Research has found that when some California charter schools unionized, student achievement was largely unaffected.

Caveat: These rankings don’t seem to say anything about student achievement.

One important thing to remember about the NAPCS rankings: Just because a state scores well (or poorly) doesn’t say much about the quality of the state’s charter sector, as measured by student achievement. There just doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the two.

For instance, Rhode Island received poor marks from NAPCS, but its charters perform extremely well relative to traditional public schools, according to one study. On the other hand, Indiana was ranked No. 1 as having the best laws in the nation, but charter schools there only slightly outperform district schools.

California charter schools, despite getting relatively strong ratings from NAPCS, perform slightly better in reading and slightly worse in math than traditional public schools.

Earlier research suggests that “permissibility” in charter law — how easy it is to get a charter started and authorized — is negatively related to student achievement. On the other hand, charter autonomy — the degree to which existing charters are free from certain regulations — is positively associated with achievement.

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