What are Charter Schools?

James Paterson
James Paterson
M.S. in School Counseling
‘Charter Schools’ spelled out in colorful letters on a black background.

Charter schools have engendered a mix of feelings in the education community for more than two decades, stirring up good arguments on both sides. It is clear, however, that they are likely to be part of the fabric of the country’s educational system for some time no matter how the debate takes shape.

What is a Charter School?

In a detailed description of charter schools and their history, Harvard Ed. Magazine from the university’s education graduate school, notes that they began in the early 1990s and were, as the book the Charter School Experiment put it, “envisioned as small-scale, autonomous schools run by independent mom-and-pop operators who would be positioned to respond to local community needs.”

They generally are public, tuition-free, and open for enrollment on a first-come, first-serve basis or by lottery, with no limitations to who can attend. They can also develop curricula, personnel, and budgets independently and separate from the districts in which they operate, according to the Harvard Ed. Article.

The federal government’s National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRD) notes that there are some 7,500 charter schools nationwide serving about three million students, nearly 60 percent of whom receive free and reduced-price meals. About 56 percent are in urban areas, while 26 percent are in suburban areas and another 18 percent are in smaller towns and rural locations. Hispanic, white, and black students are nearly evenly served by the schools, NCSRC reports.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) spells out the differences and offers details about the operation of charter schools, noting that some “may focus on college prep, some follow a Montessori curriculum, and others integrate the arts into each subject”.

“The possibilities are endless, but charter schools aim to provide a range of options so that parents can choose the school that best fits their child,” NAPCS says.

It notes that they can be started by any parents, community members, or teachers. It is common to see charter schools led by former teachers who wanted to take the lessons they learned in the classroom and scale to an entire school community.

Charter School vs. Pubic School: Differences

Charter schools have considerable independence about how they are run compared to traditional public schools. They can have different classes for their students compared to those from traditional district schools, or longer school days or school years, though they typically do have to be certified by the state and meet some state education requirements.

Both receive funds from the government, but generally charter schools get less and don’t receive funds from local tax revenue in the way that public schools do. They may have to raise money to supplement their funding.

When it comes to admission, anyone can attend either, but public schools often determine eligibility by geography. Charter schools may have criteria based on grades or attendance, but generally don’t limit attendance to students from a particular area.

“A charter school is a public school that operates as a school of choice,” according to NCSRC. “Charter schools commit to obtaining specific educational objectives in return for a charter to operate a school. Charter schools are exempt from significant state or local regulations related to operation and management but otherwise adhere to regulations of public schools — for example, charter schools cannot charge tuition or be affiliated with a religious institution.”

It says the two key criteria for them are that they be “accountable and autonomous” — they have more flexibility in the operations and management of the school than traditional public schools. They could serve as a laboratory for new approaches and ideas, advocates said.

Critics have been concerned about the way some charter schools have used that freedom and about them taking funds away from school districts – or certain students.

“As charter schools bloomed, the laboratory theory largely gave way to the reality of a parallel education system,” according to the Harvard article. “Charters collaborated with public schools far less often than teachers unions liked, and liberal legislators – historic allies – began to side with the unions more readily. Competition bred animosity.”

Proponents argue that the schools do allow more freedom for innovation and create a competitive climate where schools will perform at their best to draw students and parents. But critics such as the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union, say that hasn’t been the case and data suggests its students have generally performed about the same as in public schools.

What Kinds of Students are Charter Schools Appropriate For?

Some parents who have children with disabilities select charter schools, particularly if one promises to offer services that will benefit their child. They may also appeal to parents of a child with a special skill or artistic gift.

Because they may have fewer students and smaller classes, they also sometimes appeal to parents with students who have social anxiety or tend to be introverts and might be passed over in a traditional classroom.

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