- SAT weighted rank (2003): 12th out of 25 states and the District of Columbia
- ACT weighted rank (2003): N/A
- ALEC Academic Achievement Ranking: 36th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia
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California offers intradistrict open enrollment, allowing students to enroll in a public school of choice within their district. With permission from the school board and principal, a high school student may enroll in college courses for high school and postsecondary credit. Low-income children can attend a school of choice with the help of tuition scholarships provided by several private scholarship foundations.
In the early 1970s, the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity implemented a voucher program in Alum Rock, California. Designed by Harvard University professor Christopher Jencks, the program would have given students in Alum Rock's predominately low-income, minority schools a voucher to attend any participating public or private school. To participate, schools would have had to take the voucher as full funding and provide parents with information about the school's academic performance and programs. Because of fierce opposition by the teachers unions, the program was reduced to a program of limited public school choice and eventually abandoned.
In 1992, then-Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, signed Senate Bill 1448, the Charter School Act. The law was amended in 1998, 1999, 2002, and 2003. As it stands, the act permits the establishment of 650 charter schools and raises the cap by 100 schools for each subsequent academic year. Local school boards, county boards of education and the California State Board of Education may authorize a charter. Charter schools receive 100 percent of the public schools' per-pupil funding. Teachers in charter schools must be certified.
Under a pair of bills passed in 1993--Assembly Bill 1114 and A.B. 19--parents have the right to transfer their children to other public schools within the district and outside of the district, subject to limitations of space or racial balance policies. Interdistrict transfers are limited to districts that elect to participate.
Publicly funded private school choice became a major political issue in 1993 when Proposition 174 was placed on the ballot. This proposition would have amended the state constitution to provide vouchers for families to enroll their children in public, private, or parochial schools. The initiative faced stiff opposition from the California Teachers Association, which spent $12.4 million in a successful effort to defeat it.
During the 1999 legislative session, S.B. 882 was introduced to provide vouchers to students in poorly performing schools. Another bill, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 20, would have allowed students to receive vouchers for private school tuition. Both bills died in committee.
In 2000, San Juan Capistrano District Administrator Margaret LaRoe sought the authority to turn the entire district into a charter school district. LaRoe argued that independence from state regulations would enable districts to use their funds in the way that best meets their needs and would allow superintendents and school boards to focus on monitoring and supporting charter schools. The Capistrano proposal received support from an unusual alliance that included Republican State Senator Bill Morrow and the California Teachers Association, which supported the effort because it guaranteed that the district would remain unionized. Nevertheless, legislation to implement the proposal died in committee.
In 2000, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper sponsored Proposition 38, a voter initiative to provide parents, regardless of income, with universal vouchers worth $4,000 per child for use at any public or private school. As many as 6.6 million children would have been eligible for these vouchers. Draper spent $23 million to gain support for the measure. The California State Board of Education contributed $26.3 million in opposition. A June poll found public opinion to be split, with 39 percent of respondents in favor of the initiative and 39 percent against it. On election day, the proposition was defeated.
Private scholarships continue to attract parents. In 1998, the Children's Scholarship Fund (CSF), a $100 million foundation, selected Los Angeles and San Francisco as two of 40 "partner cities" that would receive matching donations for private scholarships to help low-income students attend a school of choice.
In 1999, the Independent Institute began offering need-based and merit-based tuition scholarships to students in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties in amounts of up to 75 percent of tuition or a maximum of $1,500. The institute awarded 238 scholarships for the 2002-2003 school year.
In 2000, the Catholic Education Foundation announced that it would award $4.5 million in scholarships to nearly 4,700 children from disadvantaged families enrolled in Roman Catholic schools in the fall of 2001.
S.B. 740, signed by the governor on October 14, 2001, reduced funding for charter schools offering home-based instruction. The law created the Charter School Facility Grant Program, providing funds for rent and lease costs for charter schools in low-income areas.
Then-Senator Ray Haynes (R) sponsored S.B. 715, which would have required teachers in public schools to send their children to public schools. A poll conducted by the teachers association found that a third of teachers who have school-age children send their children to private schools. Nevertheless, the bill was strongly criticized by the state's largest teachers union. "In their campaign to defeat school vouchers for all California families," noted Haynes, "the teachers' union argued that vouchers would destroy the public school system." Haynes's bill failed to move out of committee.
During the 2001 session, a tax credit bill, A.B.1625, was introduced to allow individuals to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit for donations to a nonprofit scholarship organization that supports low-income children. The bill died in committee.
In May 2001, the Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Education for instituting regulations on charter schools that were not in the law and that violate the intent of the Charter Schools Act. The suit contended that the department forced charter schools to discard their own accounting systems and use the more costly and inefficient reporting systems used by the public schools. On April 11, 2002, a Sacramento County Superior Court struck down the regulations instituted by the Department of Education.
The Charter School Facility Grant Program was amended in 2002 by S.B. 2039. The state now provides funds for facilities, rent, and lease costs to charter schools where 70 percent or more of the students are eligible for the free lunch program.
A.B. 1625, a tax credit bill from 2001, was modified and reintroduced. The amended bill would have given taxpayers a credit worth 50 percent of their donations to a tuition scholarship organization. The bill died in committee.
According to a 2002 California State University study, California Charter Schools Serving Low SES Students: An Analysis of the Academic Performance Index, the state's charter schools were more effective than traditional public schools in increasing academic achievement for low-income and at-risk students. Charter schools with at least half of their students participating in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program improved at a rate of 22 percent, while traditional public schools improved at a 19 percent rate. Charter schools with 75 percent participation improved at a rate of 28 percent, compared with 24 percent in the other public schools.
Parents of home-schoolers in Sonoma County were notified in April 2002 that their children would be deemed truant if they were not enrolled in a public or private school and that the Sonoma County Office of Education would stop providing the form that parents must file to homeschool their children. Several months later, the California Department of Education told parents that they could not homeschool their children unless they had a professional teaching credential and that they would have to enroll their children in a school or risk having them considered truant. Delaine Eastin, then-state Superintendent of Public Instruction, declared that home-schooling was illegal and has called for the state legislature to clarify the status of home schools. The law requires only that home-schooling parents submit a form designating their home school as a private school.(72) In 2003, under the new leadership of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jack O'Connell, the Department affirmed the legality of home-schooling and removed negative comments about the option from its Web site.
In 2003, researchers published several groundbreaking studies revealing the effectiveness of California’s charter schools. A study by the RAND Corporation, Charter School Operations and Performance: Evidence from California, found California charter school students perform at least as well academically as their traditional public school peers. This is notable, since charter schools receive less funding than public schools, typically enroll more academically challenged students, and tend to have less experienced teachers. The study also found that students in new charter schools (as opposed to converted public schools) perform slightly better than those in traditional public schools.
“The Performance of California Charter Schools” by Margaret Raymond, Ph.D., of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found students at California’s elementary charter schools experienced slightly higher academic growth than their traditionally schooled peers between the years 1999-2001. Middle school charter school students showed annual improvement between 1999 and 2002 but average growth each year was significantly lower than for traditional public schools. Charter high school students, however, experienced almost twice as much academic growth between 1999 and 2002 as their counterparts.
The Charter Schools Development Center (CSDC) released a report showing that students at five-year-old state charter schools were doing better on average than other public school students on state tests. The average Academic Performance Index base score for charter schools was almost 20 points higher than the public schools' average score.
A.B.1464, introduced in the 2003-2004 session, would allow more individuals and organizations to establish charter schools and would permit both universities and nonprofit organizations to approve charter applications. The bill was referred to the Assembly Education Committee, but received no further action.
A.B. 349, a voucher bill introduced in 2003 by Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta), would create the Cal Grant for Kids Pilot Program in the Compton Unified School District (a similar program exists for college students). Vouchers would be made available for students to attend any school, public or private, in the Compton district. The bill died in the Assembly Education Committee.
The governor signed into law A.B. 1137, which specifies the oversight responsibilities of chartering entities, mandates performance standards for charter renewal, and provides for the inclusion of charter schools in categorical block grants. He also signed into law S.B. 15, which made changes to charter school facilities funding.
In January 2004, The Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), which conducts nonpartisan policy analysis for the California legislature, issued recommendations in “Assessing California's Charter Schools.” These include removing the cap on the number of charter schools, restructuring fee policies and funding streams, allowing school districts to opt out of authorizing while permitting other authorizers to charter, and by promoting stronger accountability measures.
Developments in 2005
In May 2005, researchers found that "classroom-based" California charter schools (as opposed to virtual schools) were 33 percent more likely to meet targets for improvement set in the state's Academic Performance Index (API) than traditional public schools. In addition, charter schools outperformed noncharters at all grade levels. In his budget submitted in January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated funds for charter school facility grants, but in his May revision, he inserted $9 million in one-time grants. An additional $9 million was included in the revision for the matching federal charter school facilities incentive grants program.
State Choice Laws: See Education Commission of the States
Position of the Governor/Composition of the State Legislature
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, supports public school choice and limited school vouchers. Democrats control both houses of the legislature.