Thousands More California Students Being Educated in High-Performing Charter Schools

August 26, 2014

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(Sacramento, CA) - Today, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) released its fourth annual Portrait of the Movement, a report that tells the story of what has happened in California's charter school movement over the past five years, why it has happened, and what can be done to ensure continued growth and momentum. Trends highlighted throughout Portrait of the Movement, Five Year Retrospective: A Charter Sector Growing in Numbers and Strength indicate that tens of thousands of students are being educated in better performing charter schools than just five years ago.

When CCSA released its first Portrait of the Movement in February 2011, an image was presented that highlighted an inspiring promise and daunting challenge within the charter school movement. The image was "The Shape of the U," a graph depicting a distribution of academic performance for charter schools showing that in the 2007-08 school year, controlling for demographics of students served, approximately 21% of California charter schools were performing in the bottom tenth of all public schools in the state, with another 21% in the top tenth, and strikingly few "in the middle." This publication was intended to provoke a greater sense of urgency among many in the charter school movement to begin shifting that "shape of the U into a J."

"Today, just five years since we first presented 'the Shape of the U' concept, we see that California has reduced by approximately one third the percentage of charter schools performing in the bottom tenth, and has held nearly constant the large percentage of charters in the top tenth," said Jed Wallace, president and CEO, CCSA.

It is important to recognize that this progress was made against the backdrop of unprecedented charter school growth in California that was unmatched across the nation. As of 2013-14, California has the highest number of charter schools of any state in the country with 1,130 schools serving over 514,000 students. CCSA anticipates continued growth in 2014-15, as momentum builds for what has already been a very robust growth picture for charter schools in California.

"Our research demonstrates that even during a time of unprecedented growth and severe funding crisis, academic strengthening can occur. If we can do it here in California across the largest charter public school sector in the nation, then it can happen anywhere." said Diane Tavenner, Founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools (SPS) and CCSA Board Chair.

"This year's Portrait of the Movement is a story of collective response, as we see that the strengthening that has happened in California's charter schools has not come from any one type of charter school but has been driven by nearly every category of school improving its overall performance," said Jed Wallace.

Wallace continued, "It is also a story of collective courage, as it involves leaders from many different kinds of charter schools from across the state coming together to create minimum performance expectations and enforcement provisions which undoubtedly helped move the overall sector in a positive direction."

Key Findings: 2014 Portrait of the Movement

The California charter schools movement is a large and diverse sector serving a half million public school students and growing every year while making significant improvements in academic performance. Whether looking at the distribution from a school perspective or a student perspective, the general story is the same: the California charter sector has shown signs of improvement over the past five years. That performance has been driven by quality growth, strengthening of results across many segments of our movement, and the closure of underperforming schools.

The California's charter sector has strengthened for multiple reasons. One of the brightest spots in the current Portrait of the Movement is the unprecedented success that charter schools are having with low-income students and other historically underserved student populations.

  • Students at charter schools serving low-income populations are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in a school that is among the top five or ten percent of all public schools statewide.
  • More than half of the students (52 percent) attending charters serving a majority high poverty population attend charter schools that are in the top quartile of all public schools statewide, compared to only 26 percent of similar students attending traditional public schools.
  • To put this into perspective, these 78,000 charter school students - enrolled in top quartile charters - would make up the fourth largest school district in California and the 42nd largest school district in the nation.

Charter school outperformance is not limited to low-income students. CCSA is seeing the "J-shaped" performance trend with other minority student groups.

  • More than a quarter of all English learners, African American, and Latino charter students attend charter schools that are among the most outperforming public schools in California.
  • Students at charter schools serving a majority of historically disadvantaged students are likely to be among the most outperforming schools in the state - three times more likely to be in the top tenth percentile and 5-6 times more likely to be in the 5th percentile.

California also has a vastly expanding charter school sector that is growing what is succeeding. Within almost all segments of the charter school movement - Charter Management Organizations (CMO), freestanding, classroom-based, nonclassroom-based and autonomous conversions - there has been considerable strengthening. The disproportionately high numbers of replications attached to outperforming organizations is a trend CCSA has called out consistently in every year of the Portrait of the Movement and this year is no exception. These organizations are also more likely to have the expertise, institutional capacity, and resources to be able to repeat their success in a new school. It is absolutely true that we are growing what succeeds in California. In fact the only place where there has not been much progress is in the district-dependent (non-autonomous) charter school segment which has historically performed very much like traditional public schools, and continues to do so today.

Another key reason for the improvement in the charter shape of the U is that more underperforming charter schools are closing. Schools close due to declining enrollment, revocation or non-renewal of the charter by the authorizing entitiy. The report shows that the charter schools that closed in 2012-13 were far more likely to be on the underperforming end of the spectrum than were charter schools that remained open. The trend of underperforming charters being more likely to close, identified in every year of the Portrait of the Movement, is an important step in the improvement and strengthening of the California charter school sector. Such progress would not be possible without CCSA's members taking a lead role in ensuring that appropriate levels of academic accountability are in place across the charter school sector.

"We recognized that the mixed performance of the charter school sector was, and still is, a huge challenge for our movement, perhaps the greatest threat that charter schools face, and one that few have been willing to tackle with the urgency that we think is needed," added Cameron Curry, Executive Director of The Classical Academies, and CCSA Member Council Chair. "I am proud to lead the Member Council and be part of California's charter school movement. Our movement has boldly addressed the challenge of underperforming schools, and consistently advocated for increased accountability in exchange for the autonomy and flexibility that is key to charter success."

Ongoing Accountability & the California Charter School Movement

Perhaps most importantly, this year's Portrait of the Movement is a story that emerges at a high-stakes moment for the country and for California's charter movement. Nationally, a once-in-a-generation shift is occurring in the public school accountability systems, one featuring the sun-setting of an old approach based upon a patchwork of state-specific assessments and the emergence of a new approach based upon additional comprehensive school factors and tests adopted by broad coalitions of states formed around the Common Core.

For the first time in decades, many states, including California, have no reliable school performance data upon which to evaluate schools. As such, this is a moment of particular vulnerability for the charter school movement, a movement predicated upon the fact that it will generate better results than the traditional public school system as demonstrated by academic results.

It is critically important for the charter movement to be able to tell the story of how gains are being made statewide in communities being served by charter schools. CCSA remains committed to transparency and accountability for the students and families California charter schools serve. Through the development and implementation of CCSA's Accountability Framework, CCSA is able to identify and support charter schools along the performance spectrum, including an annual process for recommending the closure of persistently low-performing schools as a natural part of a healthy charter school movement.

Through these efforts and others, CCSA will use every tool at its disposal to ensure that parents and the public understand how California charter schools are performing with students. CCSA will continue working to ensure that only those schools that are succeeding with students are allowed to continue to operate. That is the fundamental charter school recipe that has worked for more than two decades. And CCSA will work to make sure it remains in place for many more decades to come.

"CCSA intends to seize this unprecedented moment of risk and opportunity by launching into the development of a new, Common Core-aligned academic accountability framework in collaboration with California charter schools," notes Dr. Elizabeth Robitaille, SVP, Achievement and Performance Management, CCSA. "By working quickly to provide constructive pressure to the state's charter sector, we can continue to accelerate ever greater levels of performance relative to traditional public schools."

Robitaille continued, "In this vein, we hope to begin working with similarly minded charter associations across the country. Together we can strengthen charter performance across the nation with the development of an assertive accountability agenda."

Evidence coming out of California's charter schools over the past five years argues that - based on, charter school enrollment growth, waiting list numbers, and polling data - the public has never been more supportive of charter schools than they are right now. And this growth in support has happened during a period when charter schools have been held more accountable than traditional public schools and have strengthened their performance as measured by results on standardized tests, especially with historically underserved students.

"This Portrait of the Movement report is a story of hope - not just the hope that it is in fact possible to improve performance across a sector as vast as California's, but the hope born of a recognition that the positive trends highlighted appear likely to continue and perhaps accelerate in the years to come if we maintain our collective commitment to improve charter school performance," said Wallace.

History of CCSA's Portrait of the Movement

In January of 2011, CCSA released its first annual Portrait of the Movement publication showing the performance of all California charter schools and identifying performance trends within the sector. Rather than comparing averages as many studies had done before, this research revealed that charter schools had higher concentrations of schools at both ends of the performance spectrum (a U-shape). The report received national recognition, including the Award for Excellence in Advancing Knowledge from the National Alliance of Charter School Authorizers. CCSA has continued to release a Portrait of the Movement report annually.

After years of member engagement, consultation with technical experts, and rigorous testing by staff, in 2011, CCSA formally adopted the CCSA Accountability Framework to guide our support for charter schools in renewal. Accordingly, CCSA will annually call for the non-renewal of schools in renewal that are below the CCSA Minimum Criteria for Renewal.

To ensure key charter school stakeholders, such as parents and elected officials, understand the range of performance in charter schools, CCSA launched a dedicated website with public data files showing performance of all schools. In addition to individual school and school comparison reports, CCSA created regional reports and interactive maps showing school academic outcomes.

About the California Charter Schools Association The California Charter Schools Association is the membership and professional organization serving 1,130 charter public schools and more than 514,000 students in the state of California as of the 2013-14 school year. The Vision of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) is to empower parents and educators to unleash a new era of innovation within public education so that highly autonomous and accountable schools of choice provide quality learning opportunities for all California students. The Mission of CCSA is to enable our members to increase the number of students attending quality charter schools in California as quickly as possible by securing policy wins supportive of charter schools and providing the supports necessary to open and expand quality charter schools. For more information, please visit