There are 6,000 charter schools nationwide, more than 1,000 in California and upwards of 250 in Los Angeles.
It turns out, that's not enough.
A report released Thursday by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that 520,000 students nationwide are on a charter school waiting list, including 50,000 kids in California hoping for a spot.
And more than 15,000 students are wait-listed for seats in Los Angeles Unified, which already has a charter enrollment of 100,000 -- the most of any district in the country.
" 'Charter' has become a brand -- a sign that something different and special is going on at a school," said Corri Ravare, managing regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, which contributed to the study. " 'Charter' has become synonymous with quality."
More than 4 percent of American kids -- 2.3 million students -- are enrolled in charters, which supporters tout as publicly funded alternatives to private schools. That concentration roughly doubles to 8 percent in California, with an estimated 471,000 charter students.
About 15 percent of Los Angeles Unified are enrolled in charters -- both independently run schools and affiliated charters, a hybrid model unique to LAUSD that gives traditional schools greater autonomy while retaining ties to the district.
Nine traditional campuses in LAUSD are slated to convert to charters this fall, when nearly two dozen new startups are scheduled to open. Charter advocates say the demand for charters is keeping pace with the new seats added each year.
"Every year, we have more applications than available seats," said Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance College Ready Public Schools. "Next year, we have approximately 3,300 open seats across 22 schools, and 2,700 (more) on our waiting list."
Alliance has focused its operations in South Los Angeles, with a network of campuses in low-income communities served by historically low-performing public schools. While LAUSD has made gains in improving academic achievement at its neighborhood schools, the successful track record of charter schools is still a powerful draw, Suitor said.
"Parents want choice, and they want the ability to send their kids to a quality school," she said. "Parents are paying attention and want what's best for their kids. It's up to us in public education to provide that."
LAUSD is the authorizing agency for most of the charters operating in its boundaries, with the Los Angeles County Office of Education overseeing the rest. Charter operators have to submit plans that detail enrollment and academic goals, which are used as guidelines when the school board decides whether to approve or deny a charter application or renewal.
Over the last three years, about 30 charters in LAUSD have closed down after falling short of their goals, said Jose Cole-Gutierrez, the chief of the district's Charter Schools Division.
"One of our key theories of change is to make sure that students have a portfolio of strong schools to choose from, and this includes very strong charter schools," he said.
While some education advocates see charters as a threat to the future of traditional campuses, Cole-Gutierrez sees opportunities for collaboration.
"Parents want great schools, but they're not necessarily looking at a model," he said. "We are interested in how charters can share their promising practices, but also how they can learn from us. It's all how we work together."
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1. Modern school supplies
Gone are the days when students were set for school with a three-ring binder and some No. 2 pencils. Now, parents say they're making expensive runs to local craft stores each time a project is assigned and are even furnishing their students with their own laptops. "You have to have a computer, and then you have to have the programs the school runs," says Jodi Drange, a parent from Montana whose daughter goes to <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/montana/districts/laurel-h-s/laurel-high-school-12096" target="_hplink">Laurel High School.</a> "They never have enough time at school [for assignments] and they won't get their project turned in unless they can work on it at home." If your child needs a laptop, consider a refurbished model that can be significantly less expensive, Florida parent Krause recommends.
For the Krauses, costs of the fall play, the spring musical, and a trip for a thespian group competition were straining the family's budget. "[My daughter] was talking about also wanting to get into softball, and we were like, 'Well, we don't know if we can afford the equipment if you want to continue to do drama,'" Krause says. "It's getting ridiculous, cost-wise, to continue to fund all these things through the school." Participation in important but increasingly costly after-school programs may necessitate a family conversation, says Carol Ranft, a mother who lives within Georgia's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/georgia/districts/gwinnett-county-public-schools" target="_hplink">Gwinnett County Public Schools</a> district and who was paying $450 a year for her son to play lacrosse. "I think that's probably one of the bigger questions for parents: As the cost of those kinds of activities increase, are their students willing to put in their time and effort into a cause or an activity?" Ranft asks. "Is it as worthwhile to them for their time as it is for the parents' cost?"
3. College prep
It's important for college-bound high schoolers to be ready for their next step, but taking Advanced Placement tests, which cost $87 each, PSATs ($14), and SATs and ACTs ($49 and at least $34, respectively) can get expensive. [Get tips on <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/test-prep" target="_hplink">college test prep</a>.] "Fifty dollars doesn't seem that bad, but most kids take [the SAT] two or three times before they <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/applying" target="_hplink"> apply to college,</a> so that can add up," notes Karen Schoonover, chief academic officer and principal of Pennsylvania's <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/new-hope-academy-cs/new-hope-academy-cs-16756" target="_hplink">New Hope Academy Charter School,</a> where low-income students get test fee waivers. If testing costs will be an issue for you, investigate waiver options with your school's guidance counselor, Schoonover recommends. Schoonover's daughter took college prep further, with subsequent costs. Through a dual enrollment program at <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/pennsylvania/districts/west-york-area-sd/west-york-area-senior-high-school-17432" target="_hplink">West York Area Senior High School,</a> she took college courses for $250 each, amassing 17 credits by graduation--which would have cost about $12,000 to earn at a university, her mother estimates. "It saved me a lot of money in the long run," Schoonover says. "I wasn't really prepared in her junior year to start writing checks for tuition, though."
Even getting to and from school can get pricey. Confronted with the option to pay $1,500 a year for a school bus to come, the Krause family decided to drive their daughter both ways each day instead--a cost of about $150 a week, Krause estimates. For students who have a bus option but would prefer to transport themselves, there may be an additional cost, too: "If you're a senior and you're looking forward to driving your car and parking at a high school lot, parking fees have gone up," AASA's Domenech notes.
5. Special occasions
From senior trips to prom tickets, parents may find themselves opening up their wallets frequently--or facing the crestfallen faces of their teens when they hear the word "no." Even graduating from public high school can be costly once gowns, caps, tassels, and ceremony tickets are purchased. "I know this is all optional, but it's part of the high school experience, and it's all hidden costs," says Yvonne Johnson, a Delaware parent whose daughter goes to the <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/delaware/districts/charter-school-of-wilmington/the-charter-school-of-wilmington-4580" target="_hplink">Charter School of Wilmington.</a> "It's not always easy to say no to them, [but my daughter's] going to college, and you've got think about all those expenses." [Find out <a href="http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2011/09/13/get-your-kids-financially-ready-for-college-early" target="_hplink">how to talk to your children about money</a>.] The balance of costs and involvement will differ for each family, as you work as a team to figure out what you can pay for--and what you think you should. For the Montana-based Drange family, for instance, having no money saved for college was "the trade-off," mother Jodi reasons. "My kids are super, super involved in everything--I just think it's part of a well-rounded education, so we pay," Drange says. "We might not to do this or that, you know, 'cause I think the kids comes first in our lives."