Public charter schools have avoided the worst effects of California's budget crisis, which has forced traditional public schools to shorten the school year, increase class sizes and lay off staff.
The number of charter schools could grow by 11% this fall -- a trend fueled in many cases by an infusion of federal government and philanthropic support. Many are also able to reduce costs by hiring less experienced teachers who earn lower salaries than veteran teachers at unionized schools, in addition to being able to bypass many state and local regulations.
The expansion of charter schools is a central element in the education agenda of the Obama administration, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has enthusiastically backed the movement. The original goal of charter schools was to develop new education models that regular public schools could emulate. They may now also be generating new strategies for survival through tough economic times.
Charter schools have not entirely escaped California's budget crunch. Many are making adjustments to their programs, including reducing the number of teachers, coping with late payments from the state, relying on digital textbooks and asking parents to help out even more than they have in the past.
But that flexibility is allowing charter schools to grow just as other public schools are feeling the effects of education reforms begun more than a decade ago, when California's state budget was flush with cash.
"Charter schools are not immune to the current recession, but they are more nimble, and their budgets have more room to be modified on the fly," said Marguerite Roza, who has studied charter schools for years and is now senior data and economic adviser at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Last year, 809 charter schools operated in California. An estimated 56,000 new students enrolled in charter schools in 2009 -- a year of "incredibly strong growth," according to Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. That pushed total charter school enrollment to 341,000, or about one in 20 public school students in the state.
This fall, the 89 new charter schools that are expected to open could push the total number close to the 900 mark, although exact figures won't be known until all schools open during the next few weeks.
Among those are five in the central San Joaquin Valley -- one each in Kings and Tulare counties and three in Fresno County. These include Dailey Charter Elementary School, the first charter school launched by Fresno Unified School District.
Wallace points out that established public schools enjoy certain advantages, such as operating out of existing school facilities. In contrast, charter schools typically must use operating funds to rent classroom space, a major obstacle for many schools.
"Right out of the box, charter schools are having to do more with less," he said.
At the same time, charter schools have the advantage of being exempt from most laws and regulations that apply to school districts, and can seek waivers from others, such as curriculum requirements, teacher tenure rules, and hiring and firing policies.
Charter school teachers also are usually nonunion workers and are younger or less experienced than those at a typical public schools. About 60% of teachers in California public schools are tenured, which translates into higher salaries, compared to 22% of teachers in charters, a 2006 study by the American Institutes of Research found.
"Charter schools are typically paying teachers salaries that are on a par with local school districts, so starting salaries are about the same," said Robin Lake, associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. "Where they are saving money is by hiring newer teachers -- so their total payroll is lower."
With so many teachers laid off from public schools, charter schools are having no trouble hiring new teachers.
"Their big advantage is that they have very junior, low-priced teachers, and very few benefits to pay to retired teachers," said Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University.
Many California school districts are cutting the school year from 180 to 175 days, and increasing K-3 class sizes well above the 20-to-1 student-teacher ratio established more than a decade ago.
In contrast, the 2,500-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, a low-income community north of Burbank, is offering a 190-day school year, while maintaining a class size of 20-to-1 in kindergarten through third grades. The school, now in its 18th year, was one of the first charters in the state.
"We have flexibility in deploying resources," said principal Yvonne Chan, who was also appointed to the state Board of Education by Schwarzenegger. One example is that parents help out in positions such as crossing guards and cafeteria workers.
Because the school is not unionized, those determined to be the most effective teachers are paid higher salaries, regardless of seniority.
Nevertheless, the decline in state support for public schools in recent years has hurt some charter schools. Todd Dickson, executive director of the Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, said his school received $5,831 per student this past year, $936 less than in 2006-07. That means that his school received $386,000 less in state funds than three years earlier.
He'll partly cover the loss by increasing student enrollment from 400 to 430. The school has also kept the number of administrators -- a total of four -- to a minimum. The school has no gymnasium, pool, sports fields, lunchroom or space for performing arts.
"Part of our advantage is that we offer a no-frills model," Dickson said.
He is so confident that the state's budget problems won't derail Summit's plans to open two new charter schools in San Jose in the 2011-12 school year that the principals to run them have already been hired.
Aspire Public Schools, which operates 30 charter schools in California, has benefited from major infusions of philanthropic support, including a $2.9 million grant from the Gates Foundation last year. It has just opened five new schools -- two in South Gate south of Los Angeles, and others in Huntington Park, Sacramento and Stockton.
To offset state budget cuts, some Aspire schools have reduced support staff such as reading intervention and after-school specialists hired to help struggling students.
The nation's largest charter school operator is the Knowledge Is Power Program, which last month was awarded a $50 million Investing in Innovation grant by the U.S. Department of Education. The program plans to open two new schools in Southern California this fall, to add to the dozen schools it already runs in California.
To cut costs, the program's new Empower Academy in South Central Los Angeles will use computers more intensively, which school officials say will allow teachers to give students more small-group and individualized attention.
"We are taking advantage of the budget crisis and implementing a hybrid technology-infused school," said Marcia Aaron, executive director of KIPP LA. Class sizes will increase from 20 to 28. But by adding computers and two instructional assistants, half of the students will complete guided study on the computers, while the others work in small groups with one of the adults.
Aaron estimates she will be able to cut five classrooms and five teachers from the school. Over time, she expects to reduce facilities costs by 15% and save $70,000 in payroll costs for each of the next five years.
"Ever since we started to see the economy go south, we've really responded and reduced costs in ways that we thought wouldn't hurt our core instruction," she said.
This flexibility gives charters an edge when it comes to surviving an economic downturn that could endure for several more years, educators said.
"We don't begrudge charters schools the freedom they have," said Chris Eftychiou, spokesman for the Long Beach Unified School District, which this year increased class sizes, cut five days from the school calendar and laid off hundreds of teachers for the first time in years. "However, to level the playing field, our school district should have the same kind of freedom from red tape and outdated mandates that charter schools enjoy."
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson agreed.
"I would just love to have the same opportunity to operate my district with the same rules and flexibility as charters," he said.
California Watch is a project of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.