Innovations In Education: Supporting Charter School Excellence Through Quality Authorizing
June 2007
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California Department of Education Charter Schools Division

Authorizer Profile: Selected Characteristics (as of 2005–06 school year)

First year of operation Number of staff Total number of schools Number of students Total number of school closures
2004 3.5 8 schools and 8 all-charter districts operating a total of 15 schools* 9,440 1

*The Charter Schools Division is partially responsible for the all-charter district schools. California State Charter Law:

In a state as expansive as California, traveling from one place to another can take a full day or more. The state's size presents special challenges to the Charter Schools Division of the California Department of Education (CDE) in its role as the only statewide charter authorizer in California.

California has over 250 different authorizers, but most are local districts, and the majority—about 80 percent—authorize only one or two charter schools. By contrast, the state charter division fills a discrete authorizing role: It is empowered to recommend for approval charter schools that appeal to the state after having been denied at the district and county levels and to recommend charter schools with a proven record that seek to replicate statewide. This latter role results from a 2002 state policy change creating a new type of charter, known as a "statewide benefit" charter. Under this policy, a successful school may be allowed to open additional sites that all operate under one charter. Statewide benefit charters, coupled with an anticipated rise in the number of charter applicants being denied at the local level and appealing to the state, are likely to yield a dramatic rise in the number of schools overseen by the California charter division.

In addition, the California division can recommend "all-charter districts" for California State Board of Education (SBE) approval. This process involves a school district converting all of its schools to charter status after demonstrating the purpose of the all-charter district and the relationships among the schools and the district and county offices of education. Once it receives all-charter district status, a school district is technically under the oversight of the Charter Schools Division, but the county office of education in which the district is located continues to monitor certain aspects of the district's operations. The partnership between the state and the county office of education is essential to the oversight of all-charter districts. In the 2005– 06 school year, eight state-authorized all-charter districts enrolled 6,306 students in 15 schools.

The mission of the CDE's Charter Schools Division includes promoting high-quality charter schools as a way to reform public education, developing partnerships to promote the expansion of high-quality charter schools, analyzing student performance data and providing feedback to schools, and becoming a premier state model for support and expansion of high-quality charter schools.

The CDE has strategically approved its eight schools and eight all-charter districts to create a mix of innovative and proven approaches and to encourage schools to open in communities where most of the district's schools are in program improvement. With direction from the SBE, the charter division intends to use its statewide benefit charters to expand school choice particularly in California's isolated rural communities and heavily populated urban districts where students have been trapped in failing schools. The first two of these statewide benefit charters will likely open in 2007.

There is strong support at the state level for charter schools: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and the Chief Deputy Superintendent Gavin Payne are very supportive of charter schools, as is the SBE, the secretary of education and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The support has led to extra funding for charter schools and for the Charter Schools Division, and it allows them a great deal of autonomy as an authorizer. The California Charter Schools Association also has a strong presence across the state and acts as the CDE's partner on many issues related to charter advocacy.

For all authorizing decisions, the CDE's Charter Schools Division reports to an Advisory Commission on Charter Schools. The commission, appointed by the SBE and the state superintendent, is composed of district superintendents, charter schools, teachers, parents, members of the governing boards of school districts, county superintendents of schools, and the California state superintendent of public instruction. The SBE makes all final decisions regarding charter grants, renewals, and closure. This structure makes oversight inherently political, particularly because the SBE is appointed by the governor and because the superintendent is elected. Teachers unions are a strong force in California, and they tend to oppose the creation of charter schools. But their position hinders the CDE's ability to authorize successfully only inasmuch as it prevents the superintendent's office from taking political risks on new charter policies.

As student enrollment has been declining in most of California's public school districts, the tension between districts and charter schools has increased. Charter schools are perceived by some people as a potential threat that could "steal" much-needed per-pupil dollars. With many local districts less inclined to authorize charter schools, CDE's authorizing role has become that much more important. The department, which serves as an advocate for charters statewide, is seen as offering an alternate authorizing route for charter operators who think they will be turned away by a local district.

The CDE's Charter Schools Division dedicates three staff positions (two of them full-time, the other half-time), in addition to its director, to oversight of charter schools and the all-charter districts authorized by the state. These staff members are responsible for reviewing applications, developing contracts, overseeing performance and compliance (in cooperation with other charter schools office staff), conducting site visits, and making recommendations for renewal and revocation. The Charter Schools Division also has nine other staff members who are responsible for overseeing the hundreds of other charter schools in the state, but not in the capacity of an authorizer. These staff members do offer expertise to the state-authorized schools in several areas of oversight, such as monitoring achievement data, complying with special education requirements, critiquing program design, and assisting with facilities and financing. The Charter Schools Division also draws on the expertise of staff outside of its own office. If a portion of a charter operator's application is particularly innovative or looks risky or unfamiliar, division staff may consult colleagues within the CDE for their perspective on its feasibility.

The CDE's Charter Schools Division has put a high priority on its staff expertise, ensuring that all staff interactions with charter schools are based on the same core philosophy. The CDE's Charter Schools Division underwent an 18-month training with NACSA during which all staff members were involved in development and implementation of new authorizing practices. Even the CDE staff members who are not involved in oversight of state board-approved charters received the training, so that they could see the "big picture" of charter schools and understand the process of approving and overseeing a charter school. The division's philosophy is woven into each of the policies it developed with NACSA and was a part of each workshop that staff attended during the course of their training. This training created a culture of collaborative partnerships with charter schools (instead of a strict compliance approach) and treating charter schools as clients.

Charter schools in California are held to specific performance requirements for renewal based on the state's Academic Performance Index (API), a measure of student performance on state assessments. To qualify for renewal, charter schools must earn an API ranking that is similar to district schools with comparable student populations and meet all AYP criteria for the previous three years.

The Charter Schools Division has developed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that clearly and transparently outlines the key areas involved in the oversight process. The standard MOU then is tailored to each charter school and is reviewed annually. The CDE commonly negotiates governance, facilities plans, and special education arrangements with its charter schools. Measures of academic achievement are less flexible, but have been modified in the past for schools with innovative programs that have a track record of success.

The Charter Schools Division stays in touch with its schools primarily through frequent phone contact and Web-based, interactive discussions. Schools also may subscribe to three listservs, which periodically provide information via email about grant opportunities, compliance updates, and other relevant updates. Aside from this and their reporting requirements, CDE-authorized schools are left on their own. They can call for help and will receive extra assistance if they are having trouble. But schools that are performing well and meeting the terms of their charters are given a great deal of autonomy.

Because of constraints on the CDE's geographic reach in such a large state, the charter division is pursuing the possibility of contracting with county offices of education, local nonprofits, colleges and universities, and other entities to be regionally available to its charter schools and conduct site visits, so that state-authorized schools will have an authorizing representative available nearby in their part of the state. This would not change the authorizing bodies but would involve these community stakeholders in the oversight of charter schools.

Signs of Success: California Department of Education Charter Schools Division
  • In 2006, five out of six (83 percent) state board-authorized charter schools met their annual growth targets on the state's Annual Performance Index, a measure of student performance on the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) tests.

  • Also in 2006, 80 percent of state boardauthorized charter schools exceeded the annual performance growth of 100 other non-charter schools that had similar demographic characteristics.

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Last Modified: 05/26/2009