After 17 years, California's grass-roots charter school movement has overcome a rocky start and fostered improvements in student learning.
A form of public schools, charters are open to anyone and are free. Faced with less paperwork and fewer legal restrictions, the schools are supposed to be places of innovation and creativity. A few have failed and closed. Others have been accused of financial irregularities and shut down by state authorities.
Despite those bad apples, charter schools have emerged as a third educational option that can't be ignored by private schools and traditional public schools.
Twelve charter schools have opened in Stanislaus County over the past decade. For many of them, the drive was the same — to help the chartering school districts attract more students and the accompanying state funding.
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The trend in Stanislaus County mirrors the beginning of California's charter schools in the early 1990s. California's first charter sprouted in the Bay Area. San Carlos Charter Learning Center's goal was to try something outside the box and to halt the San Carlos School District's declining enrollment, said Don Shalvey, the district's former superintendent.
"I don't think you could be living in the Silicon Valley in the early '90s and not be caught up in entrepreneurship," said Shalvey, who later co-founded Aspire Public Schools, a charter school management organization with three charter schools in Stanislaus County.
In the beginning, charter schools were given a lot of flexibility, with very little restrictions on financial accounting or student attendance reporting.
"The Education Code is 6,000 pages long. It has all kinds of rules and regulations," said Gary K. Hart, a retired 20-year state assemblyman and senator who wrote California's charter school law. "With every crisis, the natural response is to pass a law. It's overwhelming to school officials. We wanted to give people an opportunity to not have to follow all those rules and regulations that can stifle creativity."