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Charter School Formation and Governance

Frequently Asked Questions


What is a Charter School?

A charter school is an independently run public school that is granted greater flexibility in its operations than a traditional public school in exchange for greater accountability for performance.  Charter schools operate under a “charter,” which is a contract between the school and its authorizing agency.  The charter both authorizes the school’s existence and outlines the terms and conditions of its operations. 


What is an Authorizing Agency?

In California, charter schools can be authorized by a school district within which the charter school seeks to locate, the county board of education or the state board of education.

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What is the Purpose of a Charter School?

Charter schools were created to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, students and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure as a method to improve student learning; increase learning opportunities for all students, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as academically low achieving; encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods; create new opportunities for teachers; provide parents and students more options in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system; hold these schools accountable for meeting measurable student outcomes and provide them with a means by which to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability; and provide competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools.


How are Charter Schools Governed?

Charter school governance structures vary.  In California, there are “independent” charter schools that function as independent legal entities and are usually governed by or as non-profit public benefit corporations and “dependent” charter schools which are established by or remain part of the school district or county office of education that granted their charter.  An independent charter school operates independently of the school district in almost all respects, including finances, and has its own governing board which may include administrators, teachers, parents, community volunteers and other professionals such as attorneys and accountants.  Some independent charter schools are affiliated with charter management organizations that operate multiple schools.  A dependent charter school functions under the auspices of the school district’s board of education, and the school district typically administers all funding for the school. 

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Are Charter Schools Public Schools?

Charter schools are public schools.  They receive public funds, are tuition-free and are open to any student who wishes to attend.


How do Charter Schools Differ from Other Public Schools?

Charter schools are exempt from many of the laws and regulations that apply to other public schools.  They have greater autonomy in terms of curriculum, textbooks, instructional methods and class schedules as well as financial and personnel decisions.  In exchange for this increased autonomy, charter schools must fulfill their obligations under their charters, in addition to complying with applicable laws and regulations.  They must also demonstrate performance in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability.  If they consistently fail to do so, their charters may be revoked and the schools may be closed.  Charter schools also provide a means for school choice within the public school system.  Parents and students can choose a school that meets their educational needs. 


How do Charter Schools Differ from Private Schools?

Charter schools are public schools.  They receive funding from the state and the federal government.  Like other public schools, they may not charge tuition and must be nonsectarian in their policies, programs, and practices.

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Can a Public School be Converted to a Charter School?

Yes, a public school can be converted to a charter school.  It is called a “conversion” charter.


Can a School District Convert all of its Schools to Charter Schools?

A school district may convert all of its schools to charter schools if the charter petition contains all of the elements required to be included in a charter petition, as well as signatures of fifty percent of the teachers within the school district and alternative attendance arrangements for students residing within the school district who choose not to attend charter schools.


Can a Private School be Converted to a Charter School?

The law expressly prohibits the conversion of a private school to a public charter school.


How are Charter Schools Funded?

Charter schools receive most of their funding from states, although the federal government does offer some grant funding.  In California, like other public schools, charter schools receive state and local tax dollars based on the number of pupils in attendance in each grade level.  Additional funding is provided for students with greater needs, such as low-income students and English language learners.  Public funding generally follows the student to the public school the parents choose, regardless of whether it is a charter school or a traditional district school.

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How is a Charter School Established?

Parents, community leaders, teachers, school districts, educational entrepreneurs, and municipalities may submit a charter petition to a charter authorizing agency to establish a charter school.  The authorizing agency must review the petition and determine whether it contains the elements required by law, and must determine whether the school possesses the requisite support from parents, teachers and the community.


What Must a Charter Petition Contain to Merit Approval?

To be approved, a charter petition must contain the elements required by law and must provide information regarding the proposed operation and potential effects of the charter school, including, but not limited to, where the school intends to locate and a first year operational budget, including start-up costs and cash flow and financial projections for the first three years of operation.  The authorizing agency must approve the petition unless factual findings support one or more of the following conclusions: (1) the charter school presents an unsound educational program; (2) the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement their program; (3) the petition does not contain the signatures of at least one-half of the number of teachers that the charter school estimates will be employed at the school during its first year of operation and/or the signatures of the parents or legal guardians of at least one-half of the number of students that the charter school estimates will enroll in the school for its first year of operation; (4) the petition does not contain affirmations of the specific requirements of charter school law, such as that the school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and all other operations, shall not charge tuition, and shall not discriminate against a pupil on the basis of disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic defined as a hate crime; (5) the petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of the 15 elements mandated by the Education Code; and (6) the petition does not contain a declaration of whether or not the charter school shall be deemed the exclusive public employer of the employees of the charter school.

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What are the Required Elements of a Charter Petition?

Each charter petition must contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of each of the following 15 required elements:  (1) A description of the educational program of the school, the charter school’s annual goals, and if the proposed charter will serve high school students, a description of how the school will inform parents about the transferability of courses to other public high schools and the eligibility of courses to meet college entrance requirements; (2) the measurable student outcomes identified for use by the school; (3) the method by which student progress in meeting those student outcomes is to be measured; (4) the governance structure of the school, including, but not limited to, the process to be followed by the charter school to ensure parental involvement; (5) the qualifications to be met by individuals employed by the school; (6) procedures to ensure health and safety of students and staff; (7) the means by which the school will achieve racial and ethnic balance among its pupils, reflective of the general population residing in the district; (8) admission requirements, if applicable; (9) the manner in which financial audits will be conducted, and the manner in which audit exceptions and deficiencies will be resolved; (10) the procedures by which students may be suspended or expelled; (11) provisions for employee coverage under the State Teachers’ Retirement System, the Public Employees’ Retirement System or federal social security; (12) the public school alternatives for students residing within the school district who choose not to attend charter schools; (13) a description of the rights of any employee of the school district upon leaving the employment of the school district to work in a charter school, and of any rights of return to the school district after employment at a charter school; (14) the procedures to be followed by the charter school and the entity granting the charter to resolve disputes relating to provisions of the charter; and (15) the procedures to be used if the charter school closes, including a final audit of the charter school to determine disposition of all assets and liabilities of the charter school and plans for the maintenance and transfer of pupil records.


What is the Timeline for a School District’s Approval of a Charter Petition?

The governing board of a school district must hold a public hearing for a proposed charter within 30 days of receiving a charter petition.  During the hearing, the governing board of the school district must consider the level of support for the petition by teachers employed by the school district, other employees of the district and parents.  The school district must then either approve or deny the charter within 60 days of receipt of the petition.  If both parties agree, that date may be extended by an additional 30 days.


Can a School District Governing Board Approve a Petition to Establish a Charter School if the Grade Levels Served by the School are not Currently Served by the District?

The governing board of a school district may approve a charter petition for a school that will serve grade levels not served by the district only if the petition also proposes to serve all of the grade levels served by the district.

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What is the Maximum Term of a Charter?

A charter may be granted for a period not to exceed five years.


What Happens if a School District Denies a Charter Petition?

If a school district denies a petition, the petitioner may elect to submit the petition to the county board of education.  If the county board of education denies the petition, the petitioner may file a petition for the establishment of a charter school with the state board of education.  A petition submitted either to a county board of education or the state board of education must still meet all otherwise applicable petition requirements.


When and Where Did the First Charter School Open?

In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law.  California followed suit in 1992.


How Many Charter Schools Are There in the Capistrano Unified District?

The District has authorized five charter schools to operate in the District.

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Frequently Asked Questions:

Contact Us:
Heidi Crowley, Coordinator
Charter Schools and Strategic Initiatives

(949) 234-9220