Charter school growth slowing in Sacramento. What’s driving the statewide trend?

After years of vigorous growth, charter school enrollment is showing early signs of decline in Sacramento County just as state lawmakers zero in on ways to limit the industry’s swift expansion in California.

New enrollment figures show charter school enrollment grew by 2.6 percent this school year in Sacramento County – the slowest rate in at least the last decade – and climbed by 4 percent statewide.

Still, twice as many students are taught in charter school programs now than during the 2007-2008 school year, according to data from the California Department of Education. More than 33,000 Sacramento County students are now enrolled in charter programs, which includes virtual schooling and independent study, accounting for 13 percent of the student population.

The slowdown has not resulted in any boon for the county’s public schools, which have seen meager or negative growth since 2010, data shows. The trend lays bare a new reality in K-12 education where parents are exercising choice and privately-run and public schools are trying to accommodate them.

Although Anastasia Harrison lives walking distance from an Elk Grove public elementary school, she enrolled her children in the nearby California Montessori Project, which is home to 500 students. The school also has other campuses throughout the Sacramento region.

The school teaches children in block grades, so Harrison’s third-grade daughter is in a class with first- and second-graders. Entrance to the school is tight but she said the lottery and waitlist didn’t discourage her from applying.

“I was a little concerned about public schools. I told myself that if they didn’t get into the charter school, I was going to homeschool them,” Harrison said. “It’s not a traditional classroom where kids may get bored. My kids are able to work ahead, and when they help the younger kids, it reinforces what they already know.”

Many parents want specialized programs that emphasize different learning styles and second languages. Others feel a public education may not offer their children enough. Districts, perhaps in a race to keep up, have pivoted to charters, too, converting some of their traditional neighborhood schools.

That’s one of the reasons behind the seemingly explosive growth, said Willow Herrington, vice president of school performance for the California Charter Schools Association.

“A lot of those big increases have actually been driven by these districts who are converting large swaths of their traditional neighborhood schools to charter status,” Herrington said, citing Los Angeles Unified as an example.

“When you start to normalize (the data) and take out these anomalies of big districts converting to charters, (growth) ends up being a little bit flatter.”

Although California’s charter law has been on the books since 1993, the state auditor concluded in a 2017 report that it has spawned some unscrupulous practices by a few school districts. For various – mostly financial – reasons, districts authorized charters outside of their districts and began converting public campuses to charters.

Lawmakers are taking aim at a perceived lack of oversight. One bill has already been signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom that would require charters to have open meetings and abide by public records laws. Another three are in the legislature and propose to lower the cap on the number of charters allowed and restrict them to the boundaries of the district where it was created.

But the Sacramento area has never been a hotbed of charter activity compared with other spots in California. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has more than 270 charters, San Diego Unified has close to 50, and Oakland Unified had 35 charters as of last school year.

Sacramento has 52 charters spread out across 10 districts, including one authorized by the county office of education.

Some operators like Lee Yang, superintendent of Yav Pem Suab Academy in Sacramento, want to grow. Yang said he wants to open as many as 10 schools in the future.

“Our endgame is introducing what we do here to anybody who is interested,” Yang said.

YPSA, as the school is known, opened in 2011 with 265 students. There were 466 students enrolled this year, just 14 less than the cap of 480. Yang believes parents are attracted to the school’s unique way of teaching using a so-called “body-brain” education that emphasizes learning through the senses.

That was the case for Lonnie DeWitt, 72, who chose to send both his granddaughters to the school in the Greenhaven/Pocket area. DeWitt’s daughter attended Lisbon Elementary, a public school that operated in the same building as YPSA before it closed in 2009.

Although the school’s ethos is decidedly Asian, specifically Hmong, DeWitt, who is black, didn’t like the alternative path facing his granddaughters after canvassing schools in the area.

“We found that the nearby neighborhood schools just didn’t measure up,” DeWitt said. “I just wasn’t pleased with what I was hearing and seeing.”

He was placed on the waiting list, met with the principal and they got in. DeWitt doesn’t regret the decision.

“It’s an educational experience,” he said, “a very well-rounded educational experience.”

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