Scott discussing with students the importance of civic engagement.

Earlier this year, a mother who had sworn to keep her kids out of public school informed the local school board that her attitude had changed, once they were enrolled in the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a newly founded charter school in Orange, California. At the same Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) meeting, parents repeated that their kids exhibited more confidence and the parents themselves felt a greater sense of community at the school. All praised the school’s teachers for providing better instruction.

OCBE stands out in promoting school choice. Since a pro-charter majority emerged in 2018, it has approved several other excellent charter school’s petitions and has overturned dozens of inter-district transfers in favor of the student. People want choices. The board is committed to supporting parents and students who cannot afford private school or do not have the ability to homeschool.

It was in 1992 that California took a bold step and became the second of now 44 states in the US to allow the establishment of charter schools, thanks to legislation introduced by the late Gary K. Hart, a Democrat elected to the state Senate in 1982. Hart, a former teacher and highly respected education policy expert, envisioned an experiment involving a small number of schools that would allow “a lot more focus on quality” and innovation.

By 1996, the State Board of Education unanimously voted to allow expansion of the program, as charter schools gained credibility. To date, there are over 1,300 charter schools in California that provide public education for more than ten percent of K-12 school aged children. Parents throughout California continue to seek out the focused curricula of on-site schools and the individuality of homeschooling the charter system provides. 

A mother in San Diego County, for example, whose son has dyslexia and dysgraphia, had the opportunity to remove him from a local elementary school thanks to a charter homeschooling program. The problem with the district school was the fact that he was placed in a reading program meant for students learning English as a second language.  Her son today is no longer anxious about school and more at ease learning at home with materials suited for his learning disabilities. 

Students should not be trapped by their zip code. For many low-income students, charter schools and inter-district transfers create opportunities to improve the quality of their education. According to the “LA School Report”, in partnership with “The 74”, a non-profit non-partisan education news site, charter schools have been particularly beneficial to minorities and low-income students in urban areas such as Los Angeles, resulting in more hours of instruction. And they provide the same percentage of free or reduced lunches as district schools.

Pandemic closures impacted the public-school sector severely. The state Board of Education is still assessing student performance data for 2020 and 2021, nonetheless, US News reported in November 2021 that three of the top elementary schools and two of the top middle schools in California were charter schools. Despite making up only a fraction of schools statewide, charter schools account for 30% of the state’s 100 best performing high schools and 15% among middle schools.

Unfortunately, the increased demand for enrollment in charter schools is under attack by the California Teachers Association (CTA), with the support of Governor Newsom. It’s no secret the union contributes to Newsom’s campaign funding in its efforts to stymie expansion of the program. The undisputable problem for the CTA is the fact that charter schools are not required to unionize. Charter schools had more flexibility during the pandemic to pivot back and forth and did not have to negotiate with the union to close and reopen. According to Macke Raymond, Director of Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), charter schools had an advantage when public school closures were first required, as they reopened to remote learning in an average of four days.

Back in 1992, even state Senator Hart had to “deftly navigate the union’s opposition to the charter proposal. CREDO Director Raymond, in his 2019 assessment of California’s charter school sector, reported he had never in his 25-year career “seen any other industry that allows the monopolist to determine the fate of the new entrant.”

For students, parents, and teachers, charter schools encourage performance-based accountability and competition in the public school system. Educators who choose to teach in a charter school or private institution also experience more flexibility, more contact with parents, and contribute more personally to focused and specialized curricula. Independence from an institution outside of the classroom puts the focus more on academic outcomes and less on administrative policies.

Scott Baugh (Huntington Beach) is Chairman of the Orange County Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership and Founding Chairman of The OC Marathon Foundation.

Mari Barke (Rossmoor) currently serves as President of the Orange County Board of Education. Mari works to ensure more children in Orange County have the educational choices and opportunities that her own children enjoyed.

Mari Barke reading to students at Peterson Elementary in Huntington Beach.

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