School Conversion

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Many new charter schools are formed through the conversion of traditional public schools. Find out more about the factors driving conversion and key considerations for schools that are considering that option.

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School Conversion

Charter schools are most commonly founded as new, start-up organizations. However, a good number of charter schools in California began as traditional public schools and chose to convert into charter public schools, operating independently of their local district. In contrast to traditional public schools, independent charter schools self-govern, manage their own budgets and are responsible for hiring and firing their own personnel.

As of 2011, there were about 140 conversion charter schools in California. Conversion charters have essentially the same legal requirements and processes to follow as startup charter schools. They must submit a detailed charter petition which outlines the school's education program, goals, finances, governance structure and other features. In addition, conversions must have signatures of at least 50 percent of the permanent teachers currently employed at the school. The school must then have its petition approved by a chartering authority, usually the school district. Find out more about the process for starting a charter school.

Fenton Avenue Charter School was one of the first schools in the state to convert into a charter school. In this video, Joe Lucente shares how teachers at their school came to that decision.

Traditional schools decide to convert into charters for a variety of reasons, but key drivers are the flexibilities and autonomies available under the charter model. Conversion provides increased flexibility in the areas of curriculum, instruction, operations, governance and finance in exchange for improved student achievement, continuous improvement, and additional accountability. The specific benefits of converting to a charter school can include:

  • Parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders have an active voice in school governance.
  • School leaders develop a robust professional development program, increase teacher support and effectiveness and make informed personnel decisions.
  • Budgetary decisions are made at the school level, potentially increasing the amount of dollars reaching the school and classroom, which allows resources to be aligned with programmatic mission, vision and objectives.
  • Teachers and staff have the freedom to develop and implement innovative instructional programs tailored to the needs of their students.
  • The Board of Directors has the ability to make critical governance decisions at the school site level.

There are many significant factors that schools must examine when deciding if charter conversion is the right step, including the areas outlined here.

Fact Sheet: Charter School Conversions: Myth vs. Reality

In spring 2012, CCSA did an analysis of publicly-available data about charter school conversions in California. "Conversion Charter Schools: A Closer Look" presents those findings and includes a list of all conversions as of the 2010-11 school year.

Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego converted into a charter school in 2005. Learn more about their accomplishments and hear student perspectives on the impact of conversion in this video.

Funding Considerations

When considering the conversion of an existing district school into a charter school, it is important to understand the factors that determine the financial viability of a conversion. Charter school revenue is predictable, as it is based on block grant rates and eligibility for certain programs with pre-established criteria and is allocated based on Average Daily Attendance (ADA). While revenue is predictable, expenses vary greatly from school to school. Key factors that impact expenses include: the number of certificated and classified personnel, the cost of salaries and benefits, programmatic costs and business expenses. For schools considering conversion, it is important to work with charter school finance experts to develop a full, three to five year budget based upon real revenues and expenditures to provide the complete financial picture necessary to make an informed decision about charter conversion.

In order to ascertain the economic viability of conversion, the projected conversion budget should be compared against the funding rates for the particular district where the school is located, as it could be slightly higher or lower than the average for other district schools depending on a number of factors. If possible, a comparative analysis should be done based on the charter funding model and the district funding model to illustrate the resources available to the school under each model and the programmatic impact of each.

Charter schools receive funding on a per-pupil basis from the state and federal governments, either as a direct-funded school or routed through their chartering authority as a locally-funded school. Find out more about funding sources for new charter schools.

Direct Funded vs. Locally Funded Charter Schools

One key decision is to determine whether the charter conversion will be direct or locally funded. Direct funded charter schools receive their funding directly through the County Treasury Account. Locally-funded charters are funded through their district's account. There are pros and cons to each approach.

Direct funded schools have complete control over their finances and receive their funding immediately. They may apply for additional categorical funding, grants, etc. and they can develop their own Local Educational Area Plans and programs. Direct funded charters are not dependent upon their district to disburse funds and have greater control of resources. Categorical funding such as Economic Impact Aid or Title I monies belong to the school to distribute, not to the district to apportion among its various schools and programs.

On the other hand, direct funded schools have the often onerous task of meeting all of the state's compliance requirements, filling out time-consuming paperwork, filing all the required forms and managing their own accounting, bookkeeping and payroll systems (or contracting out for these services). Locally funded charters may not have the control that direct funded charters have, but they don't face the bureaucratic hurdles either. Many charters are founded by educators who want to concentrate on the educational program and prefer to have districts handle the non-education aspects of running a school. Schools need fiscal expertise, either on staff or through contractual arrangements, before considering the direct funding route.

Facilities Considerations

Under Proposition 39, the California law which requires districts to share public school facilities with charter schools, a district is obligated to make available the furnished and equipped conversion school site to a conversion charter school.. However, charter conversions must make annual Proposition 39 requests for continued use of the campus.

Find out more about Proposition 39.

Frequently Asked Questions About Conversion

How many charter schools in California are conversions?

As of spring 2011, there were 140 charter schools in California that were created through the conversion of a traditional public school into a charter school. However, it is worth noting that the way in which schools receive funding (direct-funded vs. locally-funded) and their autonomy from the district can vary considerably.

Can conversion schools continue to offer transportation to those students that live outside of their community?

Typically, charter schools describe the types of services they will provide students in their charter petition. Generally, many charter schools do not provide transportation to a majority of their students. Bussing students is not an explicit requirement for schools converting into a charter. However, there might be statutory requirements requiring transportation in certain situations. These are examples of some groups of students for which the school may be required to provide transportation: homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Act, students with Individualized Education Plans for Special Education services and opportunity transfers under the public school choice provisions of No Child Left Behind. School districts often have court-ordered desegregation plans, which include bussing students from one attendance area to another. If the school converts to a charter school, these plans may have to be reviewed with the authorizer and the courts. If it is financially viable, the conversion charter may consider providing additional, voluntary transportation to students as a service.

Can conversion schools give preferences to currently attending students? Can they give preference to students from the neighborhood on an ongoing basis?

An existing public school converting to a charter school adopts and maintains a policy giving admission preference to pupils who reside within the former attendance area of that public school. Additional preference for students currently attending the existing public school and those living within the boundaries of the school district where the school is located can also be given.

What are the potential downfalls of a conversion?

A lack of careful planning and not having a clear understanding of the rules and regulations pertaining to charter schools can result in difficulties after the conversion. There are two primary concerns expressed by conversion schools. One is the lack of district administrative support for many of the key services they provide such as testing, compliance requirements and fiscal services after conversion. Locally-funded conversions often cite a lack of fiscal control and programmatic decision-making authority as their greatest concerns. Without full autonomy, the conversion loses its independence and ability to make decisions based on needs of students.

How will the district feel about the school converting?

Authorizer relationships will depend upon the unique situation of each district and each school. Many districts are excited about the possibilities for increased educational opportunities for their students and are highly supportive. It is up to the conversion team to work directly with district administration, the Board of Trustees and County Office of Education staff to explain why charter conversion is the most appealing and viable option for ensuring increased academic achievement for all students.

How can I learn more/what resources does CCSA offer?

The California Charter Schools Association provides wraparound supports for charter schools and school developers. CCSA has technical experts on staff to assist school development teams with the petition and budget development process. In addition, the Association provides regional advocacy expertise and can help your team craft plans for community outreach and positive authorizer relations. Once approved, CCSA offers extensive services for its members ranging from financial and legal assistance to insurance and business services. Learn more. Schools just starting to look at the option of converting can contact a CCSA representative in their area with questions. Find a contact for your region.