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Monday, April 11, 2005 | This is the first in a four-part series.

In times of economic hardship, it is popular to say that when California sneezes, the rest of the country gets a cold. But it’s not just bad tidings that are contagious. Positive trends also often develop in the country’s most populous state before they catch hold and sweep the nation.

Such is the case with charter schools, those mysterious educational institutions that have made California – and San Diego in particular – the centerpiece of this emerging movement.

Although a charter school bill was first approved in Minnesota in 1991, the phenomenon began in a big way in California in 1992 with the passage of legislation sponsored by former state Sen. Gary K. Hart, who served 20 years in the state Legislature and chaired the Senate Education Committee from 1983 until his retirement in 1994.

Now, more than 3,000 charter schools nationwide serve nearly 800,000 students, and the number of students in the United States attending charter schools is increasing at a rate of about 15 percent a year, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

Leading the way, California is home to one-sixth of all charter schools in the country and nearly 25 percent of all charter students, with 537 schools serving about 180,000 kids -more than double the second highest state, Michigan, which has 82,000 students in 216 charters. Arizona has 495 charter schools with 73,000 students, Florida has 258 schools and 53,000 students, and Texas has 241 charters serving 60,000 students.

Within California, San Diego County serves as a model for charter school success, said CCSA vice president of communications Gary Larson. And within the county, the San Diego Unified School District has more charters as a percent of its total number of schools than any other school district in the state.

How did charters grow to be such a force in education reform?

What are they?

A charter school can serve any combination of kindergarten through 12th grades and is usually created when a group of parents, teachers and/or community leaders petition a local school board or county board of education to open an independent school in their community.

Charters must be sponsored by an authorizing agency, which is either the local school district or the county board of education – although in 2000 conservative commentator George F. Will wrote that, according to Arizona’s then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Keegan, making charters ask school boards for permission to exist is like making Burger King ask McDonald’s for some McDonald’s restaurant space to sell Burger King burgers.

The schools are called charters because they operate under a set of guidelines specifying objectives, operating procedures, terms and conditions, all outlined in an agreement called a charter, which is a contract between the sponsoring board and the charter organizers.

Although they are technically public, charter schools are unlike traditional schools in many fundamental ways. Once formed, a charter school operates independently of the local school district, with its own board that usually includes parents, teachers and community members. Charters are generally exempt from most laws governing school districts, and their boards have the freedom to run the school more like a business.

This means charters hire and fire employees, define salaries and benefits, handle accounting and payroll, pay rent, buy insurance, establish personnel and student policies, provide maintenance and custodial work, purchase supplies and equipment, set schedules for students and staff, make curriculum decisions, formulate strategies and implement instructional philosophies.

Authorizers, however, have oversight responsibility and are required to review charter school progress regularly to ensure that schools meet academic goals. Local school districts, county boards of education and the state can revoke charters.

How charters begin

Public schools that have failed for four consecutive years to meet academic expectations, or Adequate Yearly Progress – as required by the federal No Child Left Behind education legislation – are labeled “failing” and require restructuring under the law. Creating a charter school is one valid way to restructure.

These schools are said to be reconstituted, which Bennett said is the same as being reconfigured. They technically close down and begin anew, reconfigured as start-up charters. Examples of these types of schools, Bennett said, include King Elementary and Gompers and Keiller middle schools, whose controversial charters were approved March 1 by the San Diego school board.

Some schools that have failed federal standards and are required to restructure may choose to remain within the traditional public school system, but would need a plan to overhaul their instructional methods and/or academic programs to meet NCLB learning objectives. All plans need prior approval from the school board, which has a number of options under the law for addressing the needs of a failing school.

Although charter schools appear to embody two opposing philosophies by being public schools that operate like private schools, their general success has proven that the two concepts are compatible. Billed simply as schools of choice, proponents say charters offer a way to provide parents with an alternative to traditional public schools within their local school district.

Larson defines a charter as “a public school that gives teachers and the local community flexibility and independence in deciding their own curriculum, staffing and budgets, with the goal of improving student achievement.” He calls charters “the real definition of site-based management” and considers them to be “a laboratory of innovation” – the research and development arm of the public education system.

Tuesday, Part Two: How San Diego has come to be regarded as a leader in the charter school movement.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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