What is a Charter School?



In the current debate on educational policy in America, the charter school system has taken a front-and-center seat. But not many people understand how a charter school works, or what makes a charter school a charter school. In fact, the findings from a recent PDK/Gallup Poll survey on the public’s attitude toward education showed that a significant percent of those surveyed did not understand the charter school system at all. According to the poll, nearly half (48%) of respondents did not know that charter schools are public schools; another 57% thought that charter schools charged tuition, and nearly half of those surveyed thought that charter schools were allowed to teach religion. All of these beliefs are false when it comes to charter schools. So what is a charter school, and why all of the buzz?

What exactly is a Charter School?

A charter school is a public school that is independent of the local school district. Instead of being subject to local school district control and oversight, a charter school is governed by a “charter” or a legal agreement which outlines the rules and requirements of its operation, as well as expected outcomes and performance measures. Charter schools are approved and evaluated by non-profit accreditation organizations which are responsible for measuring performance, from test scores and graduation rates to financial management of the school. These same organizations determine whether or not the school gets to keep its charter and remain open every 3-5 years, on average.

How is a Charter School different from a Public School?

A charter school is often thought of as a hybrid school system. Charter schools are similar to public schools in that they receive federal and state funding, do not charge tuition, must teach a secular curriculum, and may not discriminate against any student. However, charter schools have more flexibility than public schools in how they teach, the qualifications of the teachers they hire, and the participation requirements imposed on the families that choose to attend the charter school.

Nina Rees, head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also pointed out in a recent NPR interview differences in funding and transportation for charter schools as compared with public schools:

“On average, charters receive 30 percent less per pupil, per year compared to traditional public schools. That gap is due in large part to the fact that charters don’t have access to the same funding streams [like school construction bonds] that traditional school systems have to build schools.

Transportation is another issue. [Charters] draw students from all over but we have to provide our own transportation, or parents rely on public transportation, because school districts do not make their buses available to charter schools.”

How is a Charter School different from a Private School?

Charter schools are similar to private schools (and dissimilar to public schools) in that students may elect to attend a charter school, and attendance is not based on where the student resides. Contrary to popular opinion however, a charter school may not turn students away any more than a public school could turn students away, based on a student’s disability or specialized learning need (e.g. English Language Learners). When a charter school receives more applications for enrollment than it has room for students, it must conduct a lottery for enrollment.

Are Charter Schools more effective than Public Schools?

The effectiveness of charter schools, as compared with public schools in the same markets, has been hotly debated, and difficult to measure. However, the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance conducted a study in 36 charter middle schools in 15 states and found some interesting effectiveness data. The participating charter middle schools all used a lottery system for student enrollment. The summary data showed that parent and student satisfaction with these charter middle schools were higher than parent and student satisfaction with the local public schools. In addition, the findings showed that students attending the charter middle schools in urban areas, as well as those serving high proportions of low-income and low-achieving students, experienced higher math test scores than students attending the local public middle schools.

As a parent, only you know what school environment is best for your child. If you believe that a charter school may benefit your child, you can find a list of charter schools in your area by visiting the Center for Education Reform or using this handy charter school locator tool from the National Charter School Research Center. Whether your child attends public, charter, or private school, Club Z! can help him/her excel in all subjects, from math and reading to history, foreign language, science, and social studies. For more information on locating a tutor, call 800-434-2582.