Charter supporters, citing the need to overhaul public education, want to change how schools are run. Opponents argue that charters steer revenues away from traditional neighborhood schools, cherry-pick the best and brightest and can avoid employment and governance rules that school districts must follow.
Charters, which the Legislature authorized in 1992, represent a small but growing fraction of the state’s public school system. They enrolled 628,849 students — more than 10 percent of the state’s total — in the 2017-18 school year, according to California Department of Education data.
Overall in California, charter enrollments have climbed by 15.4 percent over the past four years even as overall enrollments dropped by 0.2 percent. The increase in charter enrollments in Fresno and Kings counties was close to the state average but climbed much faster in Madera County (34.5 percent) and Tulare County (26.7 percent).
In the Valley where both overall and charter enrollments continue to climb, charter enrollments ranged from 6.4 percent of total enrollments in Fresno County to 17.1 percent in Kings County.
Waiting Lists for Some Fresno County Charters
Fresno County’s percentage of charter school enrollees would be even higher if there were more options available, and consequently, there are wait lists, said Michelle Murphy, the California Charter Schools Association’s former regional director for advocacy in the Central Valley and Central Coast region.
“By and large, we are seeing that there’s a demand for charter schools, there is a demand for options,” Murphy said.
Students at charter schools tend to outperform their peers at traditional public schools, said Caity Heim, a spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association.
Using data compiled by the California Department of Education from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, the association has found that 21 percent of Fresno County’s charter schools are in the top 10 percent of performance statewide, compared to only 8 percent of traditional public schools in Fresno County, Heim said.
Charters Do Well in Best School Rankings
Likewise, 18 percent of California’s charter schools are in the top 10 percent of performance statewide compared to 9 percent of the state’s traditional public schools, she said.
In U.S. News & World Reports’ annual ranking of public schools released in May, seven of the top 10 high schools in California were charters, including Fresno’s University High School, which ranked No. 5 in the state and No. 74 nationwide.
Two Valley charters — Morris E. Dailey Charter Elementary and Jefferson Charter Academy in Hanford — were among the 287 schools recognized by the 2018 California Distinguished Schools Program for having made exceptional gains in implementing academic content and performance standards adopted by the State Board of Education.
Charter schools are not a panacea, however. Students at for-profit charters tend to perform poorly, which is why both candidates for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, say they support outlawing them.
Recent studies and current data comparing charters to traditional schools with similar populations show that charters tend to provide greater benefit for students from low-income neighborhoods, but academic performance declines for more affluent students at charters.
The Kepler Neighborhood School Saga
There are exceptions. Kepler Neighborhood School in Fresno’s downtown, where more than half of students are classified as low-income, performed poorly in most categories on the fall 2017 state dashboard. The school scored in the lowest performance levels for Hispanic and low-income students. The Fresno Unified School District Board of Trustees, which oversaw the charter, voted this spring not to renew it, a decision backed by the California Charter Schools Association.
But Kepler got a reprieve when the Fresno County Board of Education opted to OK a three-year charter renewal. Jim Yovino, the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools, says there were several reasons why the county decided to give Kepler a stay of execution: The school’s management had changed, student performance was on the upswing, and the county could opt for a shorter reauthorization — an option that wasn’t available to Fresno Unified, which could vote only for a full five-year reauthorization or none at all.
The county superintendent’s office’s oversight of Kepler will include any needed assistance, as it would for any charter, he said.
Yovino doesn’t categorize himself as pro- or anti-charter: “My position is this, I’m for any school that’s good for kids, period.”