More traditional neighborhood schools are looking to operate as charters because they can get huge increases in funding as well as flexibility in how they use it. The latest example is El Camino Real High School, one of Los Angeles Unified School District's star schools.
El Camino Real High School has won six national academic quiz championships, boasts test scores that rank it as one of California's top secondary schools, and offers two dozen college-level courses ranging from macroeconomics to human geography. Activities include a model United Nations and mock trials.
The school is a source of immense pride for the beleaguered Los Angeles Unified School District, but like other successful schools before it, El Camino is about to break off from the district to get more funding and flexibility in how it spends its dollars as a charter school.
"This is a huge loss for us," said LAUSD school board member Nury Martinez at a recent meeting. "This feels like a divorce."
With budget woes showing no signs of letting up, El Camino and other traditional neighborhood schools like it are converting to public charter schools, bleeding scarce dollars from cash-strapped districts and siphoning students.
It's a troubling pattern for school districts - every student enrolled in a charter means a funding loss, and defections of their own schools and principals are a blow to district esteem.
Although conversions are holding steady at about 10 percent of new charters nationally, in California they're on the rise. Long a leader in the charter school movement, the Golden State saw a jump in the number of conversions from six in 2009 to 15 in 2010, according to the California Charter Schools Association, although in the two previous years the number was steady at around a dozen.
Besides LAUSD, Campbell Union in Santa Clara County and San Diego Unified school districts have had clusters of conversions.
At LAUSD, the nation's second largest school system that grapples with a raft of low-achieving inner-city schools, conversions are a cause for dismay - some of the district's star schools mostly located in a swath of affluent suburbs are breaking away.
El Camino is the fourth suburban high school to seek charter conversion over the past eight years - two others were stellar performers, as well - Granada Hills and Palisades. Another large school, Birmingham, went charter in 2009. Two other suburban high schools are mulling charter conversion.
Top-ranked suburban elementaries are no exception - two went charter last year and another recently filed its petition to the district.
"We're losing our high performing schools," Martinez said. "Are we going to be a district of struggling schools if everyone decides to leave - struggling schools and children with learning disabilities that no one wants to teach?"
While many charter schools accept students by application and are often criticized for eschewing special needs kids and low achievers, the converted charters still operate as neighborhood schools - they accept all students within their attendance boundaries. If they have room, they can accept students from outside their areas.
At high performing schools like Palisades and Granada Hills, students from all over the district queue up to get in, further sapping dollars from the main district.
The crux of the dilemma is different state funding formulas for charter schools versus traditional district schools.
High schools, especially, stand to gain financially by going charter because many independents receive the state's high-school funding rate instead of the "blended" rate given to schools in a unified district, which includes elementary and secondary schools.
The difference adds up. For the 2009-10 school year, the state paid independent high schools an average of $7,369 per pupil, while unified districts received $6,417 per pupil. An independent elementary received $6,134.
"There's long been a feeling that high schools are subsidizing the rest of the district because of the revenue difference," said Brian Bauer, executive director of 4,100-student Granada Hills Charter High School, one of the nation's largest charter schools that went independent in 2003. "The pressure is on these schools. The district's concern that this will create a domino effect is legitimate."
The extra funds go a long way. Granada Hills, which ended last year with a $10 million reserve, operates a mandatory four-week summer enrichment program for all incoming 9th graders. "We could not have done it as a school in the district," Bauer said. "There would not have been the funding for it."
At Palisades, teachers earn 8 percent more than their counterparts at district schools, ensuring a top flight teaching staff, said Mike Smith, interim executive director. One drawback - the school does not get busing funds.
As a charter, El Camino, as well as some elementaries, would also get extra funds for low-income students. Currently, El Camino is the only district high school that does not receive anti-poverty funds because only 25 percent of its student body qualifies as disadvantaged, below LAUSD's 40 percent threshold.
By going charter, it would get $415,000 in supplemental funds for those students.
Charters also have a lot more freedom in how they spend state money. While much of the money given to districts is earmarked for specific purposes, say special education, charter funding is not earmarked.
"How do you say no to something like that?" said LAUSD board member Tamar Galatzan, who met with El Camino Real administrators numerous times to try to find other funding avenues, to no avail. "The state has to take a really hard look at how they're funding charters and districts. It's really hard for districts to compete."
For some schools, freedom from onerous teachers' union contracts can be another motivator.
Although charter teachers are generally not unionized, teachers at converted charters remain in the main district union but under separate bargaining contracts that usually give the schools more flexibility in setting salaries, evaluating performance and hiring and firing.
That was a key reason why Birmingham Community Charter High School went independent in its quest to boost student achievement, said Executive Director Marsha Coates.
Under its separate teachers' contract, the school has more freedom from both union and district red tape surrounding hiring and firing, as well as trying different techniques, she said.
"We're doing what we feel is best for kids," Coates said. "Things are slow to change with the district."
For top academic schools, the stakes are high when budget cuts loom. Teacher layoffs often boost class size, threatening to lower all-important standardized test scores. Programs such as art and music are the first to be slashed, as well as enrichment programs that set the schools apart from their counterparts.
At El Camino, parents fear the school's performance could slide, said Jackie Keene, mother of three El Camino students, past and present.
El Camino lost seven teachers during last year's layoffs, said Principal Dave Fehte. "To maintain our academic reputation and move on, we feel this is the only way given the economic climate," he told the school board, which is scheduled to vote on the application in March.
Teachers are on board with the move - 86 percent voted to support the charter application. "I think they see this would be the best option to keep our academic excellence," said history teacher Karen Ritchie.
Superintendent Ramon Cortines said he expects the conversion trend to continue, although he's been working with high schools to free them from various rules so they stay in the district, and plans to continue operating about 25 small schools that don't pay for themselves so they don't go charter.
But unless state funding rules change, he said he foresees the day when the district's enrollment of 650,000 will plummet to 400,000. "We're going to get down to that," he said. "This will always be a district of challenges. This is who we are."
© 2011 The Associated Press.