By law, charter schools are required to enroll any interested student or use a lottery, but even some charter operators allow that the schools tend to attract families who are especially motivated. And although charter administrators generally say that they rarely, if ever, expel students, staff at traditional schools say they periodically receive troubled students who have been counseled out of charters.
These were the attractions for Highland Park resident Rosa Rivas, who moved her sixth-grade foster son to a charter school several years ago after he was beaten up at his traditional school and began to ditch class.
"It was a constant battle to get him to school," she said. At the charter, "there was not an attraction of gangs. There was not intimidation. They're smaller. There's more control over the kids. There's no gangbanging in the school. That was my main thing: safety."
Some are struggling
Although much of the focus on charters has been on the high fliers that are outstripping the performance of regular district schools, others have struggled.
Even a sophisticated charter organization like Green Dot achieves mixed results. With 18 schools and a comprehensive headquarters staff, Green Dot is practically a district unto itself. But although its campuses typically outscore nearby traditional schools, fewer than 5% of students at several of its campuses scored at the "proficient" level in math last year.
Green Dot would argue that the scores are low because it is taking students from the most academically deprived parts of the city, which is undeniably true. It took over Locke High School in South L.A., which had become a poster child for the failings of L.A. Unified.
Under its management, Locke is seeing progress; becoming safer and more orderly; and retaining more students. But the school's abysmally low test scores have yet to improve.
Another charter, Dosan/ABC, collapsed last year amid accusations of financial mismanagement and an internal struggle over control, including teacher resignations that left students scrambling to enroll at other schools.
For all that, there is no denying the very real accomplishments of the charter movement in Los Angeles.
Consider College Ready Academy No. 4, an Alliance school where 97% of the 325 students qualify for subsidized meals, a poverty indicator.
Academy No. 4 occupies a cluster of bungalows wedged onto an abandoned piece of L.A. Unified property that sits almost directly beneath the intersection of the 110 and 10 freeways downtown. L.A. Unified couldn't put a school there--district policy prohibits new schools within 500 feet of a freeway.
This year, the school had an Academic Performance Index score of 846, more than 200 points higher on average than schools that the state deemed similar, based on the students they serve. Only four of 132 high schools in Los Angeles had higher scores, and two of them are charters.
"I don't think charter schools, in and of themselves, are a panacea," said Alliance founder Judy Burton, a former L.A. Unified senior administrator.
"All of it is about hard work and being clear about what you're trying to accomplish, having clear, high expectations for kids and working to accomplish what it is you said you were going to do without having to suddenly do something new because somebody new is in charge," she said.
Started in 1992
Charter schools got their start in California in 1992, when the Legislature authorized the creation of public schools that could operate outside most Education Code requirements and free of school district bureaucracies.
The idea was to create model schools that would test innovative practices. If they didn't post better standardized test scores than traditional schools, they could be closed.