If you live in San Diego, you might have already seen a charter school in an unlikely place. Maybe as you passed by an office building, you saw what looked like a classroom. Or maybe you were at a shopping mall and spotted one between Foot Locker and the food court.

There’s something that appeals to me about the idea of good teaching happening in unexpected places. Maybe it’s a refreshing reminder that good teaching isn’t wholly dependent on shiny, multimillion-dollar facilities or expensive gadgets.

Learning Curve-sq-01

On the other hand, when schools are tucked into church basements, it can lend the whole operation an amateurish air.

The main reason charter schools take up shop in malls and commercial spaces is because it can be easier than using a district facility.

Let’s back up a step, because charter schools are confusing. They are publicly funded schools that operate mostly autonomously (see, it’s weird already). Real, credentialed teachers work in them, though most are not unionized. Compared with traditional district schools, charter schools typically have more latitude to personalize instruction or change school policies. Think of them like mini-school districts.

Charters first entered the state in 1992. California currently has 1,184 charters, and more than 547,00 students who attend them, according to the California Charter Schools Association. Another 91,000 students in the state are on waitlists.

The share of San Diego Unified students who opt for charters has steadily grown, too.

This year, 18 percent of the district’s students opt for charters. While 18 percent is a peak, it’s a pretty modest percentage when compared with say, New Orleans, where approximately 90 percent attend charters.

Make no mistake, San Diego Unified is competing for students. Last year, district officials launched a campaign to help families “Rediscover San Diego Unified” schools by marketing success stories. More recent plans include offering more online courses, because that’s where the market is.

Charters’ growing numbers are evidence that charter schools are doing something right – even if that’s simply attracting students.

But if they’re going to expand, they’re going to need more facilities. And that’s not an easy problem to solve.

Question: How are new schools opened? Do charter schools pay rent?  – Carl Weidner, reader (I paraphrased this question.)

Just about anybody can petition to open a charter school. That doesn’t mean actually doing it is easy.

The process starts with old-fashioned signature-gathering. Prospective charter school leaders need them from at least half the students’ parents who plan to attend. Or, they have to get signatures from at least half the teachers who plan to work there.

As they’re gathering signatures and building interest, charter school leaders also have to consider how much money they need to keep the school open, know where the money will come from and must craft a vision for the school.

Once they craft an application, they submit it to the school district in which they hope to open. District staff members vet the application, make a recommendation, then the school board approves or denies it.

In California, school boards are the primary authorizers for charter schools, which means they serve as a kind of gate-keeper for which charter schools are let into the district. School districts also take on some oversight responsibilities for the charters they authorize, auditing books and visiting charters to look for shenanigans.

(It’s worth noting that CCSA considers this a baked-in conflict-of-interest. That is, if school boards see charter schools as a threat to resources, they’ll be less likely to give them a fair opening assessment. Miles Durfee, CCSA’s regional director, said he would favor the creation of independent boards, made up of college professors or community members, who would authorize charter schools.)

If a charter school is approved to open, it needs to find a facility. By law, school districts are required to offer available space to charter schools. But San Diego Unified determines which spaces it will offer, and sometimes those spaces don’t work for charter schools.

Regardless of whether it’s a district facility or a private owner, charters have to pay rent. If they use district facilities, charter schools pay a small percentage of their revenue to San Diego Unified for rent and oversight. If they rent space in private facilities, charter schools are eligible for partial rent reimbursement from the state.

Recently, the San Diego City Council approved an amendment to the city’s land development codes intended to make things a little easier on charters.

Charter schools that serve 300 students or fewer no longer need to obtain a so-called conditional use permit to open in commercial zones. Andrew Keatts found that those permits can be costly, and can take about a year to obtain.

The change won’t explode the market, said Durfee. But it should help at least a few schools in the immediate future.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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