csba at issue


An urgent need to improve charter school governance


quality public school for every child remains a vision that every district strives to achieve, and access to a great public education remains the most important driver for students to achieve their potential. This vision is exactly why California leaders have an obligation to closely evaluate and rethink charter schools, how they are overseen and their impact on our public school system.

In September 2018, CSBA released Uncharted Waters: Recommendations for Prioritizing Student Achievement and Effective Governance in California’s Charter Schools as the culmination of the work of the CSBA Charter Schools Task Force, which began exploring these issues two years ago.

This report presents key policy, advocacy and support recommendations related to charter schools and includes a vision on four focus areas of critical importance: quality expectations, equitable access and equity, governance and transparency, and elevating and replicating what works in public education.

Growth and challenges

The need for the report and to continue the conversation on charter school oversight and empowering authorizers comes from years of evidence that the current system, while expanding options for many students, can still be improved to avoid the negative consequences of rapid school expansion.

Since passage of the Charter Schools Act in 1992, California now has the most charter schools and the most students attending charters in the nation (it is also the state with the most schools and public school students). During the 2017–18 school year, 1,271 California charter schools served 628,849 students — roughly 10 percent of all K-12 public school students.1 Expansion has been dramatic, increasing by 595 schools and 380,210 students in the last 10 years.2

After more than 25 years of continued charter school growth, California now finds itself far removed from the original mission and vision of the Act, which was, in part, meant to improve student learning with an emphasis on those who are academically under performing, and to help generate innovation to benefit students in all schools. California is now a state where only one in three char­ter schools produces student outcomes that are significantly better than those of the traditional public schools that those students would have otherwise attended.3 Moreover, rapid expansion has created instances of inequitable access to schools of choice, financial misconduct and governance challenges.

Managing this growth remains a challenge for school districts and county offices of education as they adapt to meet their oversight responsibilities and account for changes in enrollment.

Uncharted Waters can be downloaded at www.csba.org/UnchartedWaters.

Uncharted Waters can be downloaded at www.csba.org/UnchartedWaters.

The four focus areas

Uncharted Waters centers on four focus areas discussed during the Task Force meetings. These areas represent challenges and solutions to create a stronger system of public education, including:

  • Quality Expectations. All charter schools operating within California should produce outcomes for all student groups that they serve that are better than those of the public schools to which those students would have otherwise attended — or produce at least equal student outcomes in an innovative program that would otherwise not be available to students.
  • Equitable Access and Equity. All charter schools operating within California should serve a student population that reflects the diversity of the school district and community in which it operates.
  • Governance and Transparency. All charter schools in California must operate with a high level of transparency in regard to their meetings, operations, finances and decision-making process. Charter board meetings should be open, accessible to the public and held at or near the school site — with meeting times, agendas and minutes posted. Charter board members should also be accessible and publicly accountable for what happens in the charter school and disclose information to ensure transpar­ency.
  • Elevating and Replicating What Works in Public Education. A strong system of public schools is composed of community schools that ensure choice, quality and access is available to every student. Within this system, districts should have a process in place for sharing best practices from all public schools including charter schools, and charter schools should share their most inno­vative and successful strategies with all schools in the district.

What’s next

Over the last eight years, there has been little legislative movement to update the Charter Schools Act, and the Act has failed to keep pace with the significant changes in the state’s education landscape over the last two-plus decades.

For instance, we have seen the introduction and proliferation of charter management organizations and virtual charter schools throughout the state. These developments were not envisioned when the Act was put in place many years ago, yet the control that some multi-state CMOs are exerting on local schools are of growing concern for authorizers, parents and policymakers.

For this reason, aspects of the Task Force’s legislative priorities reflect important reforms that have been pursued over multiple years, but still remain elusive. These include recommendations that call for charter school boards to follow the same state laws that school district boards and other local governing boards must follow with respect to conflicts of interest, ensuring open meetings and the public’s access to public records.

Another familiar proposal in Uncharted Waters would restore local control by placing common-sense limits on the location of charter school facilities that lead to better oversight and accountability.

The Task Force also highlighted several new reforms that will benefit policymakers and local education communities. Chief among them is that reliable, comprehensive statewide data about charter school-related activity is hard to find — Uncharted Waters calls for legislation to require information, such as the number of petitions, appeals and method of approval, to be collected. This information is essential to decisions about what is in the best interest of students and schools.

The CSBA Task Force is decidedly not alone in recognizing the need to take a fresh and more informed look at charter authorization and oversight. Other groups are preparing for potential opportunities to improve student achievement at both charter and traditional public schools.

In the final months of his term as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson convened the “Action Team on Charter Schools” panel to review laws governing charter schools and develop recommendations for state policymakers. Uncharted Waters will help CSBA advocate on behalf of school and county board members as this panel and the larger discussion about charter school policy develops and heads into 2019.

A new chapter in the work to update the Charter Schools Act lies just ahead. The year 2019 will usher in a new gubernatorial administration and new members of the Legislature who will take a fresh look at charter authorizing and oversight issues.

Governor-elect Gavin Newsom has noted that ignoring the impacts of charters “would not be prudent,” and his campaign has called for minimal transparency measures. CSBA is sharing Uncharted Waters and the work of the Task Force with policymakers and is working to create opportunities to pursue the legislative recommendations when the Legislature begins a new two-year session in 2019.

Manuel Buenrostro is a policy analyst at CSBA. Carlos Machado is a legislative advocate at CSBA.


  1. California Department of Education, Dataquest. 2017-18 Enrollment in California Public Schools by Ethnic Designation. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 from https://bit.ly/2Pz4RY7
  2. California Department of Education, Dataquest. 2007-08 Enrollment in California Public Schools by Ethnic Designation. Retrieved on October 17, 2017 from https://bit.ly/2MtDe4x
  3. Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2014). Charter School Performance in California. Retrieved from https://stanford.io/2PyGQjJ