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What Is a Charter School?

Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on August 27, 2022

Do charter school students perform better academically than public school students? Are these institutions considered public or private schools? If you're wondering what a charter school is and whether you should enroll your child in one, continue reading to have these questions and more answered. 

What Is a Charter School?

Former teachers often run charter schools, which are independently-owned public schools. Operating under a contract, charter schools are typically privately controlled by nonprofit organizations or government agencies that hold them to a higher standard. A school district, church, for-profit group, or even parents can decide to start a charter school. 

An outside party like a district school board, mayors, the state board of education, or a special charter school board must approve the charter. Charter schools are expected to abide by the standards outlined in their charter. Some charter schools may require students to wear a uniform, while others will elect to teach the curriculum in different languages. 

What Is the Purpose of a Charter School?

The purpose of a charter school is to give faculty the ability to teach lessons they believe have a better chance of meeting their student's unique needs. Some charter schools place an emphasis on STEM learning while others focus on college prep. A charter school aims to operate as a school of choice and allow parents to choose a school that best fits their child's needs.

These schools must obtain specific educational objectives and adhere to the same regulations as public schools. Because these schools are publicly accountable, they are not allowed to charge tuition or be affiliated with a religious institution. 

Families who choose to enroll their children in these schools ensure that they have the funding to continue operating. Charter schools have more flexibility in certain practices like hiring and firing than public schools because they are exempt from certain local rules and state regulations.

Why Are They Called Charter Schools?

These schools get their name based on the "charter" or contract they must abide by. This document is a lengthy legal plan that outlines every step of the school's founder's beliefs and what they think it takes to run a successful school. This charter includes information about the school's hiring practices and curriculum choices. Any plan to renovate the space where the school will be built is also included in the charter.

If a charter school does not meet the terms of its contract, an authorizer such as a university or state agency has the power to shut it down. In exchange for more freedom, charter schools have higher performance expectations. For instance, school leaders may pursue a specialized theme of their choice but risk closure if they fail to meet the charter's standards. 

Charter School Pros and Cons

Traditionally, students are assigned to a public school based on where they live; however, parents may choose to send their child to a charter school instead for various reasons. If they believe a school's focus will better suit their child's needs or think a charter school has more dedicated teachers, parents may send their children to such an institute. Charter schools not only provide parents with options for their children but also allow them to be more active in their learning environment. Some advantages and disadvantages of choosing a charter school include the following: 

Pros: 

  • Individualized learning assistance
  • Smaller class sizes
  • Special focus
  • Higher level of flexibility
  • Alternative teaching approaches 

Cons: 

  • It may be challenging to get in.
  • Fundraising could be necessary.
  • Schools may vary in quality based on location.
  • Parents may be required to volunteer.

To enroll in a charter school, parents typically have to request a place at the school. In some cities, they may request multiple schools at once and rank them in order of preference. Within this system, students are then placed using a special algorithm. While charter schools are tuition-free and do not require an entrance exam like other private schools, they are not always easy to get into. Popular charter schools that draw in many applicants may use a blind lottery to determine who's admitted.

Before you consider it as an alternative to public school, visiting the school, talking with the educators, and doing your research are always recommended. 

Charter School History and Facts

The concept of granting a public school more freedom in its curriculum and teaching methodologies originated in the 1970s, with a New England educator proposing that teachers set up contracts with the school board to find new approaches to learning. The main purpose of charter schools is to support the notion that educators should be the ones in control so students meet their educational goals and reach a high level of success in their learning. 

In the 1980s, a former president of the American Federation for Teachers was responsible for bringing attention to the charter school movement, which remained relatively small throughout the 1970s. With his support, though, school districts began experimenting with testing these "school within a school" programs. By the next decade, the charter school movement had become one of the fastest-growing reform policies in education. 

President Bush recognized the growing popularity of charter schools in 2006 and made requests to grant funds to over 1,000 charter schools. Obama was another well-known supporter of the charter school movement and had a hand in transforming underperforming public schools into charter schools specializing in unique and exciting subjects. 

In terms of funding, the average public schools receive more support than most charter schools, forcing many to regularly raise money through fundraising and often still struggling to make ends meet. Despite this, charter schools remain popular and have made quite the expansion across the country since their beginnings in the 1970s. The premiere reason for their persistent and growing popularity lies in the unique educational opportunities they provide to students whose families might otherwise be unable to afford private school tuition. 

Charter schools are also widely appealing due to their success rates, the high test scores their students produce, and the promise of a bright educational future that they may deliver.  

Show Sources

Sources: 

California Charter School Association: “Frequently Asked Questions.”

National Charter School Resource Center: “What is a Charter School?”

Public Charter Schools: “What is a Charter School?”

Voter Vitals: “What are charter schools and do they deliver?” 

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