Sonoma County is at the forefront of the charter school movement in California with 11 new schools opening this year, second only to massive Los Angeles County Unified with its nearly 660,000 students.
Nearly a quarter -- 23 percent -- of Sonoma County's 70,700 kindergarten-through-12th graders are enrolled in charter schools. Just two years ago, 13 percent of Sonoma County students were in charter schools.
Today, there are 56 campuses working under 51 state-issued charters. Fifteen years ago, there were two charter schools in the county.
The trend reflects districts' efforts to attract students in an increasingly competitive environment and a calculated assessment of how to maximize dwindling state funding for public schools.
In many cases, charter schools can pull in more state funds and with fewer restrictions while also being free of interdistrict transfer rules. Students do not need permission from their home district if they want to attend a charter school -- a key factor as Sonoma County's 40 districts compete for students and the key portion of state funding that is based on enrollment.
"They are trying to use the system to their advantage," said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. "I think people are starting to figure out, 'If I can increase my revenue, I'll do it.' I think you'll see more of that as word of mouth of that spreads."
"I don't begrudge them any of it," he said.
The trend is not isolated to Sonoma County. In California, 1,065 charter schools serve 484,000 students -- a 17 percent increase over last year. This fall, 109 charter schools opened to students.
Only one of the 11 charter schools that opened in Sonoma County this school year -- the Santa Rosa French-American Charter School -- is new. The others are traditional public schools that converted existing campuses and enrollments into charter schools.
Most charter schools in Sonoma County are not programs started from scratch, but rather existing schools that applied to the state to convert to a charter.
Two years ago, that move almost guaranteed districts about $250,000 for planning and implementation funds. Those funds have since evaporated and now are available largely only to independent charters that start from scratch.
Still, the financial implications loom large over many districts' decisions.
In Petaluma's Old Adobe District, three of the four campuses converted to charter schools this year. One of those, Sonoma Mountain Charter School, is pursuing a focus on music and performing arts to augment an existing band program for fifth- and sixth-graders.
"Right now, there is no way we can hire a band person; we don't have the funds for it," Principal Katie Mammen said. "We barely have the money to purchase recorders for third-graders."
But because of the financing opportunities available to some charter schools, Mammen has been told by district officials "to dream."
"What we are hoping is next year to hire a band person (who) would not be a classroom teacher so they can spend more time with more students to expand the program," Mammen said.
Old Adobe Superintendent Cindy Pilar said the move to convert three of the four schools in the district to charter operations was both a financial and educational decision.
"When it gets so fiscally desperate, you do these things," she said. "You do whatever you can to provide funding for your kids when you are looking at dramatic cuts. But in our case, it really fit with our education goals for our schools."