New Report Shines Light on Conversion Charters

April 25, 2012

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The majority of California's 982 charter schools are independent start-ups. However, among these is a unique group of 139 conversion charters as of the 2010-11 school year - traditional public schools that converted into charter public schools. Conversion charters represent 16% of California's charter school movement and enroll 25% of all charter school students since they usually have larger student bodies. Traditional schools wishing to convert to charters may face criticism that their schools will suffer academically or become less diverse over time. But do conversion charters see changes in their performance or student populations over time? CCSA found that the majority of conversion charter schools have maintained or increased both their academic performance and their student diversity after conversion.

In order to seek conversion, traditional public schools must have signatures of support from at least 50% of permanent teaching staff in order to submit a formal petition for a conversion. California's Parent Trigger law opens up another option, allowing parents at low-performing schools to initiate school transformation through four options, one of which is conversion, if 50% or more parents sign a petition of support. No conversions have taken place through this process to date.

CCSA recently took a deeper look at conversion charters to better understand the impact of these school transformations. Senior Research Analyst Jennifer Orlick conducted her analysis using publicly available data and focused on whether converting to a charter school is associated with changes in the school's academic performance or demographics. CCSA also looked at charter schools' varying levels of autonomy from their local districts and whether that was associated with changes in school outcomes.

CCSA split conversion charters into two groups - autonomous and non-autonomous. Autonomous charter schools (38 of the 139 schools) are fully independent from their local school districts and receive funding directly from the state. Non-autonomous charter schools have the majority of their board members appointed by their local district, are not incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, or are subject to a combination of other factors (such as governance models, funding arrangements, and district collective bargaining agreements) that do not make them fully autonomous.

Autonomous Charters Show Most Academic Growth, Increased Enrollments of High-Needs Students

One of the most striking findings of the report was that conversion charters that are fully autonomous from their local school districts are making rapid academic gains with underserved students and have increased their enrollments of underserved students over time.

  • The majority of autonomous conversion charters outpaced traditional schools on academic growth on California's Academic Performance Index (API) at the schoolwide level and with underserved student subgroups after converting, notably: Pacoima Charter Elementary, Animo Locke Charter High School #3, Cox Academy, Steele Canyon High, and King/Chavez Primary Academy.
  • Most autonomous conversion charters increased their percentages of underserved student subgroups more rapidly than traditional schools after converting. This was particularly true at Helix High, Edison Charter Academy, Pacoima Charter Elementary, King/Chavez Arts Academy, and Alain Leroy Locke High.

Other major findings from this report include:

  • The rate of traditional schools undergoing conversion has not increased dramatically over time, staying relatively stable since the earliest conversions took place in California in 1993, with an average of eight traditional public schools converting each year.
  • When split by geographic designations, conversion charters showed a dichotomy between high levels of academic performance in suburban areas and high academic growth in urban areas.
  • The majority of conversion charters outpaced traditional schools on academic growth after converting.
  • On average, conversion charters outperformed traditional public schools in the 2010-11 school year across several academic performance metrics, including the API, proficiency rates in English Language Arts, and proficiency rates in math.
  • Looking through the lens of school autonomy, we saw two distinct profiles emerge:

    • Most autonomous conversion charters (38 schools in the 2010-11 school year) showed more rapid academic growth and increases in their percentages of underserved student subgroups than traditional schools did after converting. In 2010-11, they enrolled larger percentages of Latinos, English learners, and low-income students than traditional schools.
    • Non-autonomous conversions had high levels of academic performance prior to conversion and generally maintained this status over time. The majority of these schools did not grow their enrollments of underserved student populations compared to traditional schools. They also served less diverse student populations than autonomous conversions did in 2010-11.

Conversions in the News

There has been intense public interest in charter conversion over the past few years due to a number of high-profile conversions. Charter conversion is one of four strategies outlined by the federal government to turn around chronically low-performing schools, best exemplified by Green Dot taking over management of Alain Leroy Locke High School from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in 2007. The freshmen who started under Green Dot's management will graduate this spring.

Many diverse schools across the state have looked at conversion as a way to take control of their destiny, as with Clayton Valley High School in Concord, which converted this year in the face of tremendous opposition from their local school board.

Los Angeles is home to 23 conversion charters, and there are an increasing number of LAUSD schools that have converted into "affiliated charters," giving the school sites more control over some aspects of funding allocation and curriculum, even as the schools continue to be governed by the district in other functions. Read more about the difference between independent and affiliated charters in LAUSD.

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