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November 3, 2016

3 min

Mark Holley

Can Charter Schools And School Districts Coexist?

California charter school enrollment is on the rise. As demand rises, charter schools are popping up all over Southern California. Depending on who you ask, this is either a dream or a nightmare. In fact, some school districts have resorted to legal action to stop charter school expansion. Because charter schools don't typically have access to comparable legal and financial resources, these lawsuits can be devastating.

Charter schools have proved that they are capable of providing excellent education, but that is not the only reason parents are itching for this alternative to traditional public schools. In both Oakland and West Contra Costa County, parents find the traditional public school system lacking. But as the number of charter schools increase, those public schools lose resources support to keep up.

What exactly is a charter school?

Everyone talks about charter schools, but there are many misconceptions about what it actually means to be one. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by the state. The difference is that they function independently and accept students from all districts; acceptance is based on the right fit rather than the right location. In California, charter schools are considered nonprofits and are not seen as public agencies in the legal sphere.

When it comes to the school experience, there is no simple explanation. Carol Lloyd, the executive director of GreatSchools national online ranking database, explains it like this: "The reality is that charter schools are more diverse as a group than (traditional) public schools, so you will find everything under the sun-- even a student who basically stays at home and works on a computer."

A history

California's charter law has been in place since 1992. The flexibility granted to charter schools unintentionally led to "a two-tiered education system that has at times led to animosity and division" (mercurynews.com). New charters are required to get approval and financing from the district-- the same district that will then lose students who would otherwise attend traditional public school. In the past decade, Oakland charter school enrollment has gone from 8.1 percent to 23 percent, and that number is expected to grow.

Oakland's charter movement really took off in 2003. Parents were desperate for more options in this the struggling school district. Until recently, it caused nothing but friction between charters and traditional schools.

Developing a symbiotic relationship

A recent study done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that charter school students outperform traditional public school students in both english and math. Rather than increasing the animosity between the systems however, the Oakland District is now focusing on working together. Charters and public schools in Oakland have begun to exchange information, strategies, and expertise in an ongoing collaboration.

Last November, Oakland approved a new tax measure that will be split with charter schools on a per-pupil basis. Alternatively, West Contra Costa refuses to share its tax proceeds with charters, prompting a law suit that will further distance the focus on actual education.

Spokes person Troy Flint sets the priorities straight: "It is to our benefit to spend less time parsing the financial impacts of charter schools and as much time as possible making all the educational options available to kids better. That is a better use of our time."

A new phase

The charter movement is still relatively new and it has certainly shaken up the tried-and-true public school system. It took Oakland around a decade to begin true collaboration between systems. Meanwhile in West Contra Costa, where charter schools are still new, the animosity is heavy. Charter schools are crucial to the education world, but they are not meant to obliterate the traditional public school system. Hopefully, West Contra Costa and other districts will see a successful cohabitation between Oakland's charters and public schools, and follow suit.

What do you think? Can charter schools and school districts get along in order to benefit students and families who deserve choice in education? And if so, what are ways it can happen? Please let me know in the comments.

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