What Are Charter Schools?

What you should know about charter schools

In late 2012, Washington State voters approved legislation allowing charter schools, making it the 42nd state to permit charters. The legislation, however, passed by a very narrow margin. Those familiar with charter schools may not be surprised by the close results -- charter schools are still the subject of debate, despite being a growing trend with ties to education reform. This controversy begs the question: If the goal of charter schools is to offer high-quality, public education to students, why are they not permitted in all states?

The growth of charter schools

The first charter school was approved in 1991 in Minnesota, the National Education Association reports, and the number of schools has grown rapidly since then. As of December 2011, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools counted over 5,600 charter schools in the U.S. serving over 2 million students.

Charter school growth is rapid in certain states. California leads the nation in charter school growth, according to the Huffington Post, and is home to approximately 1,000 charter schools, nearly 10 percent of the total number of public K-12 schools in the state.

How do charter schools operate?

Charter schools operate under an agreement that outlines the type of educational outcomes to be delivered, the NEA explains, which allows for a more autonomous organization than public schools. One of the goals of this agreement is creating a culturally sensitive experience for students; another is offering students the best education possible. Charter schools are accountable for test scores and other outcome objectives for their students, but they are free of many of the regulations that affect public schools. This freedom allows charter schools to adapt their curriculum and school culture to the needs of the student population.

The aims of charter schools include serving different learning styles and offering greater flexibility, and one approach is through alternative learning models. Virtual or online charter schools deliver more than half of instruction through distance learning, Web-based or computer-based methods. Online learning may rely on self-paced or scheduled activities.

How are charter schools funded?

Public schools are typically controlled by the state's Department of Education and receive their funding through tax dollars. Charter schools, on the other hand, receive government funding but can also take in private funding. The Indiana Charter School Board emphasizes that charter schools are public schools despite receiving private donations.

While charter schools are allowed to receive educational funds from the state, a 2010 study by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice found that most charter schools receive less public funding than public schools. Charter schools are often not eligible for special education funds and transportation funds, as charter schools are often not required to supply these services.

What do parents need to do if their child is attending a charter school?

When a student is accepted into a charter school, the parents agree to supply certain services. For example, many charter schools do not offer bus transportation to and from school; parents must arrange their child's transportation themselves. Charter schools often offer tutoring and other support services but may not be required to offer special education services. Also, parents may not have the same rights over their children's educational process as they would in a public school. Parents may be willing to accept these limitations if they believe that their child can receive a better education from a charter school than from a public school.

How are students accepted to charter schools?

Students may be accepted at charter schools on a first-come, first-served basis or by referral from other schools. Some charter schools have a screening process that includes personal essays, entrance tests and academic requirements that students must meet. Some schools also require parents and students to sign contracts of behavior or performance that can be used to remove a child from the school if he or she is not performing according to expectations. Many charter schools are rather selective, so there are often waiting lists of students who wish to enroll.

Are charter schools better than public schools?

One Stanford University survey found that, statistically, there was very little difference in students' performance at public charter schools when compared to that at public K-12 schools. Education Week notes that some critics see a failure in the accountability expected from charter schools.

Despite the ongoing debate about charter schools versus public schools, in many cases the question is not one of quality but of purpose. Charter schools serve a specific purpose in most communities: offering children a particular type of education that may be unavailable through the local public schools. In those cases, children may indeed receive a more appropriate education than they would in public schools. However, public schools are also held to high standards of performance, so in most cases they are not "better" or "worse" than charter schools.

Rather, what charter schools can offer as opposed to many public schools (especially in major cities) is usually smaller class sizes and specialized attention -- both of which may ultimately aid in more effective learning. One study out of Oxford found that smaller class sizes may affect educational achievement, wages and earnings long after students have left high school.

Ongoing debate about charter schools

Controversy still surrounds charter schools, for example, in regards to funding and admissions. Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, but they operate freely of regulations that govern traditional public schools, and serve a comparably small population. According to Education Week, some observers question whether these schools should receive public funding.

Schools have also come under fire for charging students fees to reserve a spot. A $100-$200 fee to reserve a spot at Houston Gateway Academy in Texas, for example, was struck down by state legislators. Despite the claim by the school that the fee was "an activity fee," this fee was charged at the time of application, and therefore seen as tied to admission.

In addition to questions about fees and admission policies, some parents and education groups allege that charter schools are not living up to their promise to serve any student. According to Reuters, many charter schools require a thorough screening process for each applicant (including accessing their academic records, disciplinary history and citizenship), which may be "in violation of state and federal law."

Many parents argue that charter schools do little to help poor or underserved students who have struggled in traditional public school classes, and instead aim to "recruit" essentially the brightest students. Reuters noted that application systems for charter schools may put non-native English speaking parents and lower-income families at a disadvantage.

What's in store for charter schools?

Despite the controversy surrounding the strict screening process of charter schools, the movement as a whole seems to show no signs of slowing. While charter schools remain only a small percentage of the total number of public K-12 schools in the U.S., charter enrollment has "steadily climbed for the past decade," according to The Washington Post. Some charter schools are branching out into online programs.

In the face of ongoing criticism, it may be beneficial for charter schools to keep non-English speaking or lower-income families in mind when designing their application process. In addition, state governments can monitor the application process of charter schools to see that students without Social Security cards and students with disabilities are not excluded.

While the success of charter schools remains to be seen, one positive outcome of the continued development of charter schools (and the debate surrounding them) is that it forces students, parents, teachers and lawmakers to have a conversation about education reform, and focus on efforts to deliver the best possible education for students everywhere.