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Charter Schools - CalEdFacts

This content is part of California Department of Education's information and media guide about education in the State of California. For similar information on other topics, visit the full CalEdFacts.

A charter school is a public school that may provide instruction in any combination of grades (transitional kindergarten through grade twelve). Parents, teachers, or community members may initiate a charter petition, which is typically presented to and approved by a local school district governing board. The law grants chartering authority to county boards of educations, such as the appeal of a petition’s denial by a school district governing board or the direct approval of countywide benefit charter schools.

The specific goals and operating procedures for a charter school are detailed in the agreement (also referred to as the charter, petition, or charter petition) between the authorizing entity and the school’s organizers. Charter status frees the school from many of the state statutes and regulations that apply to school districts. Pursuant to California Education Code (EC) Section 47601, it is the intent of the California Legislature under state law that charter schools operate independently from the existing school district structure as a method to accomplish all of the following:

  • Improve pupil learning.
  • Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.
  • Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.
  • Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the schoolsite.
  • Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system.
  • Hold the schools established under this part accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.
  • Provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools.

Charter schools are subject to the following conditions:

  • An existing private school may not be converted to a charter school. (EC Section 47602[b])
  • A charter 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 the characteristics listed in EC Section 220. (EC Section 47605[e][1])
  • A charter school shall admit all students who wish to attend the school; however, if the number of students exceeds the school's capacity, attendance shall be determined by a public random drawing. Certain attendance preferences are available under state law. (EC Section 47605[e][2])
  • No pupil can be required to attend a charter school nor can teachers be required to work in a charter school. (EC sections 47605[g] through [f])
  • Teachers in charter schools shall hold the Commission on Teacher Credentialing certificate, permit, or other document required for the teacher’s certificated assignment. These documents shall be maintained on file at the charter school and are subject to periodic inspection by the chartering authority. (EC Section 47605[l])

In 1992, California became the second state in the nation to adopt public charter school legislation. As of May 2024, 1,283 charter schools and seven all-charter districts are operative (i.e., active) in California. Among the active charter schools are classroom-based, nonclassroom-based, and combination schools; start-up schools; and conversions of pre-existing public schools. Downloadable data files with information about California public schools are available at Public Schools and Districts Data Files. The data files provided may be filtered to reflect only charter school information.

Charter schools are located throughout the state in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Student populations are diverse and tend to reflect the student populations of the districts in which the charter schools are located. As of the 2022–23 school year, the number of students enrolled in charter schools was approximately 11.7 percent of the public school student population in California. Additional enrollment information is available at Annual Enrollment Downloadable Files and DataQuest.

Innovative charter schools provide programs that offer everything from an emphasis on foreign languages to performing and fine arts. Some charter schools develop partnerships with other public agencies (such as the California Conservation Corps or local community colleges), and some provide specialized programs (such as a program to place students in work experience settings or a Youth Build Program). Although most charter school students attend site-based (i.e., classroom-based) programs with the look and feel of a traditional classroom, other students participate in programs with research-based alternative learning modalities (such as the Montessori method) or programs that are tailored to the needs of the individual student (such as nonclassroom-based instruction). In some cases, charter schools focus on dropout recovery, providing a second chance to students who wish to pursue a high school diploma but who have not been successful in other settings.

An interactive web-based map that affords the public easy access to specific information on charter schools is available on the Charter School Locator. Additional information is available at Charter Schools.

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Questions: Charter Schools Division | | 916-322-6029 
Last Reviewed: Monday, May 13, 2024
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