Quick Guide: Understanding California education department’s role in state’s charter schools

Theresa Harrington/EdSourceTheresa Harrington/EdSourceIn 1992 California legislators passed a law allowing the operation of charter schools, which are public schools that get funding from the state and have greater flexibility in hiring, curriculum, management and other aspects of their operations. In the fall of 2017 there were 1,275 charters in the state.
The California Department of Education’s charter schools division has a major advisory role in State Board of Education decisions on charter school issues. This FAQ explains the division’s grant management responsibilities and its advisory roles in the charter school renewal appeals process and in the local regulation of charters.
What are the primary functions of the California Department of Education’s charter schools division?
The division, which reports to the state superintendent of public instruction, provides research, administrative support and recommendations on charter school issues for the State Board of Education. Charter Schools Division Director Lisa Constancio reports to Nick Schweizer, deputy superintendent of the State Department of Education’s system support branch. Currently 15 people work in the charter schools division.
What role does the charter schools division have in the State Board of Education’s decisions on whether to approve the launch of a new charter school or grant a renewal of an existing charter’s operations?
School district boards of education and county boards of education are the local authorizers that approve or deny petitions to either launch a new charter school or renew a school’s charter to continue operations. The authorizers can also revoke a school’s charter for violations of law, financial mismanagement or for academic performance failures. In California, each charter school must seek a renewal from its authorizer every five years to continue. With the advice of staff — usually the district’s charter school division — district school boards approve the petitions of the vast majority of charter schools in the state.
County boards approve or deny petitions to launch countywide charter schools and they approve or deny petitions for charters that plan to enroll students in the juvenile justice system. In addition, county boards rule on appeals from charters that have been denied, not renewed or revoked by a school district board. County boards also rely on staff to help them make those decisions. For example, the Los Angeles County Board of Education seeks assessments done by its charter school office before deciding on appeals.
Those who have had their petitions denied on the county and district level can appeal to the State Board of Education, which relies on its staff — the state charter schools division — for advice on how to rule. The state board, an 11-member panel appointed by the governor, may reverse the decision made by a district and a county if it determines that the findings made by those authorizers “are not supported by substantial evidence.” Over the past five years, the state board has overruled district and county boards in 25 of 36 appeals, giving those charter schools the right to operate.
Does the state charter schools division have additional advisory roles?
Yes. The division also provides guidance to district and county authorizers on the criteria they should use to decide whether a charter should be renewed, denied or revoked. The division produces webinars to provide this guidance.
Does the division have a role in the authorization of other kinds of charter schools?
Yes. In most cases, school districts approve or deny charter school petitions, and the charters serve the district’s students. Under California law, the State Board of Education can authorize a school to operate as a “statewide benefit charter,” a status granted to an organization that can prove its schools will provide a “distinct value” to the entire state. A school with statewide benefit status can operate schools in multiple cities throughout California. With advice from the charter schools division, the state board authorized the San Diego-based High Tech High to operate as a statewide benefit charter in 2006 and has renewed its status twice. Currently, High Tech High — which operates elementary schools, middle schools and high schools — is the only statewide benefit charter in the state.
In addition, the state board — with staff support and advice from the charter schools division — decides whether to approve a district’s petition to create a “districtwide charter,” which would give it the authority to convert all the district’s schools to charters. Currently, there are seven districtwide charter operators, organizations that manage 18 schools.
In what other ways does the division support or serve the charter school community?
The division administers the Public Charter Schools Grant Program for new charter schools. The grants can be used to plan a school and finance start-up costs. They can also be used as initial operating capital.
The division also manages the Dissemination Grant Program, which provides funds to charter schools to share best educational practices with other charters and district-managed schools. For example, the grants can be used to finance technical assistance, conferences, workshop presentations, instructional CD-ROMs and digital and hardcopy manuals. Charter schools and traditional public schools are eligible for the grants.
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