A study of charter schools in California

Researchers at the University of California/ Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies analyzed 39 charter schools in 10 school districts that represent the diversity of California’s population. Their goal was to understand who starts and who attends charter schools and why, and to describe the types of educational environment that result. Over a period of two and one-half years, these researchers interviewed 462 school and community officials, teachers, and parents, conducted site visits and classroom observations, and studied hundreds of district and charter school documents.

The 1993 California charter school law allows groups of people to start autonomous schools that are free of most state regulations except for those pertaining to non-discrimination, safety, and health. In exchange for this freedom charter schools are expected to meet the goals stated in their charter or lose their charter after five years. They also must participate in the state assessment program.

Most California charter schools receive pupil costs and categorical monies such as Title 1, but do not receive funding for their capital costs. Many charters have to rely on private resources and corporate support to pay rent or mortgages for school facilities.

People of various philosophical persuasions who are discontented with the educational system choose to design and run charter schools. These researchers describe six types of charter schools that summarize the kinds of schools they found, but they stress that the nature of this reform movement defies universal definitions or conclusions.

Urban, ethnocentric, and grassroots charters:

These represent schools founded by groups of parents, educators and community members who wish to create a safe place for their children. Often they serve children of a particular racial or ethnic group. Most of these schools are in low-income, urban neighborhoods where parents are struggling for greater independence in order to serve the needs of their children in ways that large, impersonal public schools do not. They emphasize the cultural and spiritual needs of students.

Many of these charters require parents to be involved and sign written contracts outlining their responsibilities. Most of these schools are housed in inadequate facilities, and their long-term survival depends on their ability to attract and keep corporate sponsors.

Home schooling/independent study programs:

These charters cover wide geographic distances and often use technology for distance learning. The families represent a wide range of philosophical and political positions. Most, however, are white and middle-class, with non-working mothers teaching their children at home.

Part-time educational facilitators (not necessarily certified teachers) are hired to make home visits to provide some assistance and to deliver school-bought materials and assign formal credit for students’ work. These researchers report that, in reality, facilitators in the programs they studied tended to make infrequent and very brief visits to drop off mass-produced, standardized curriculum packets and the accompanying multiple-choice tests.

Charter schools founded by charismatic educational leaders:

This type of charter, found in many different kinds of settings, arises out of the dedication and vision of an educational leader and a core of committed teachers. These leaders generally value the professional knowledge of teachers who seek to improve education for the students in their school. The leader often maintains an extremely high profile within the local community. The major concern for these schools is what will happen when the charismatic leader is gone.

Teacher-led charter schools:

Schools led by groups of teachers tend to focus on the instructional program of the school as their primary reason for becoming a charter. They range from strict, classic, college-prep programs to progressive, multi-age, open-classroom schools. Sharing the belief that teachers know what is best for the students they serve, these charters free teachers to control the curriculum as well as their own teaching.

Parent-led charter schools:

These charters are most often found in wealthy, suburban communities. A core of extremely involved, well-educated parents works closely with educators to write the policies for the charter. These parents maintain a lot of influence over who ultimately attends the school, thus controlling their children’s peer group. The curricula of these schools varies from back-to-basics to a more progressive, enriched curriculum often bolstered by the latest computer technology.

Entrepreneur-initiated charter schools:

Such charters are usually found in urban areas and serve poor and at-risk minority students. They are founded by people outside the communities they serve, people who often believe that the public education system has failed and ought to be privatized and run by entrepreneurs. This type of charter includes schools run by for-profit management firms.

The entrepreneurs often have little or no background in education and place little value on the professional knowledge of teachers. They believe that effective business practices will make the schools run efficiently. The curriculum is often driven by textbook companies and GED test preparation guidelines. Teachers in these schools, like those in home-school charters, are often part-time, hourly workers.

Observations and conclusions

These researchers found that many charter schools are founded to address issues other than student achievement or learning. Only the teacher-led and charismatic-leader schools are primarily focused on the improvement of teaching and learning. Such schools seek to improve students’ achievement through democratic and collaborative decision-making by experienced teachers. The urban, grassroots charters, these researchers suggest, have the potential to be politically empowering for formerly disconnected parents. These parents are reclaiming their right to define their children’s education. They work to improve education for their children by focusing on developing pride in their cultural heritage and embodying the moral and spiritual beliefs of their communities.

In almost all these charter schools, the governance process is more inclusive of parents than it is in most public schools. These researchers report, however, that the parent-led, suburban charters in the study are creating what amounts to private schools at public expense. These parents have the power to exclude or expel students they don’t want. They design a school identity around behavioral or academic standards. All families who share the same values and are willing to sign a contract outlining the school’s beliefs and standards are welcome, but students who fail to meet them are expelled.

These researchers express concern that because charter-school reform takes the education system to its smallest unit — the individual school — it separates and isolates different cultural, ethnic and social groups from one another. In their opinion, charter schools are splintering the public education system into small groups by identity or ideology. This research highlights the complex and contradictory themes that underlie charter-school reform.


“Charter Schools as Postmodern Paradox: Rethinking Social Stratification in an Age of Deregulated School Choice”, Harvard Educational Review Volume 69, Number 2, Summer 1999, pp. 172-205.

Published in ERN September 1999 Volume 12 Number 6

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