Charter Schools: Are They Different?


Charter schools made their way onto the public education scene in the early 1990s. Their popularity increased gradually, but we’ve heard more in the last decade or so for a variety of reasons. Many traditional public schools struggled under the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind accountability system. To solve the problem, various leaders and innovators turned to charter schools. Now, depending on who you ask, that was either great or terrible.

The Trump Administration’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, brought an increase in opposition to school choice. Some of that is a result of DeVos’s unwillingness to assure the American people that she wouldn’t dismantle public education as we know it. While there are ample arguments against public charter schools’ existence, it’s important that citizens–especially parents–have a solid understanding of charters and their role in educating America’s children.

What is a charter school?

Simply put, a charter school is a public school that operates as its own school district. Charters typically have a separate governing body that guides decision-making and fiscal responsibilities. Governance varies by state, but many charters are controlled by nonprofit organizations–specifically those with 501(c)(3) status. Traditional independent school districts (ISDs) can have an in-district charter, and state colleges/universities may also apply. Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of charter schools are not-for-profit.

How is a charter school funded?

Unlike traditional public schools, charters do not have a tax base. That means they do not receive local funds from property taxes. This is one reason charters generally receive less funding per pupil. When your local public school district wants to build more schools, it can ask taxpayers to increase the tax rate. Charter schools cannot do that. In some states like Texas, charter schools don’t even receive funding support for capital expenses (buildings) like traditional public schools do.

In general, charters finance their operations through private philanthropy, state funding via student attendance rates, and federal funding for specific subpopulations. Because so many charters require significant funding at startup and Year 1-5 operations, the landscape is highly competitive for private donors. Foundations and nonprofits like NewSchools Venture Fund, Walton Family Foundation, Building Excellent Schools, 50CAN, and others will help aspiring leaders design, plan, implement, and fund their ideas, but that does not occur before rigorous screening and interviewing.

Opponents of public charter schools argue that public funds should remain with traditional public schools because the vast majority of American children receive their education from a traditional ISD. Charter school proponents argue that American families have a right to choose the best learning environment for their children and that their children’s public funds should follow them to their charter school. This is not to be confused with the concept of vouchers. Vouchers would allow public funds to follow a child to a private school, which could create a legality concern if the private school was religiously affiliated. It’s important for people to know that charter schools are public schools.

What makes a charter school different?

There are many answers to this question, but the quick response is:

  • amount of state regulation,
  • teacher qualifications, and
  • enrollment procedures.

Because education is a state’s right, every state has its own procedures for governing charter schools. For the most part, charters have fewer rules and regulations than traditional ISDs. This allows them to be much more innovative in curriculum development and school models.

school choice, charter schoolsEducation Model

The key to a public charter school is to offer something that traditional ISDs don’t provide. For many, that’s in the education model. For example, our proposed charter school will use a competency-based education model instead of a traditional grading system, as well as a blended learning approach. Charter school models run the gamut but can often look strikingly similar to a traditional ISD’s school, which should be cause for concern. What’s the purpose of existing if it’s just more of the same?

Teacher Qualifications

Teacher qualifications also separate public charter schools and traditional ISDs. While teachers must have a four-year degree and state licensure in traditional ISDs, those rules vary for charter teachers. Many public charters require a four-year degree but no teaching certification. Some teachers complete alternative certification programs while teaching in charter schools. The pay is also significantly less for charter school teachers in some places.

Enrollment Process

A popular misconception about public charter schools is that they get to be selective in the enrollment process. That’s not exactly true, and when you pressure people to clarify that statement, often times they will change the subject. The reality is that charters have to accept almost any student who applies–including students with learning differences. The only situation in which a charter can deny entry is a student with a criminal record. Of course, this likely varies by state as well, and that’s the problem with discussing charters as a monolith; there is bound to be an exception that shouldn’t be used as the rule. Also, charters usually have to conduct a lottery for over-enrolled grade levels to give each student an equal opportunity to attend.

Student Achievement

When it comes to student achievement and state accountability, even though charters and traditional ISDs have the same measurements and expectations, state education agencies can punish underperforming charters much quicker and harsher than they would traditional ISDs. In Texas, after three strikes, organizations lose their charters and must close. Texas has a charter revocation process that does not allow for appeals unless the error lies with the Texas Education Agency. Other states may be as strict as Texas, but it is a common theme to hear that traditional ISDs have much more leeway for underperformance than charter schools. Check out your state’s charter profile here.

Why make schools compete?

I’m not a fan of forcing schools to compete for students or funding, but other school choice supporters believe that if traditional ISDs had to compete against potential closure, they’d perform better overall. I think that creates an unhealthy culture within American public education and unnecessarily puts educators on the defensive. Traditional learning environments simply don’t work for every child, so charters could focus on supporting the students who don’t wish to remain in that environment rather than seek to become a replacement for traditional ISDs.

State legislators could also revise their education codes to allow for more autonomy and flexibility for traditional ISDs to pilot and implement more innovative models. I don’t believe district leadership wants students to fail. Tying districts’ hands at the legislative level means it’ll be hard to get the results they need.

Is a charter school right for your child?

Hundreds of thousands of children are satisfied with their charter experiences. Many children and parents are not. When shopping around for the right fit for your family, try to make sure that you’re not using misconceptions as a gauge. Pay attention to the education model, education philosophy, and educational opportunities. If you want a “whole child” approach that includes more than the common subjects, ask about fine arts, foreign language, technology, and community service.

Don’t just take a school’s word that you’re going to get XYZ from it. Are their actions consistent with their message? What type of feeling to you get from the school? Don’t shrug off uneasiness. Use it to dig a little deeper until you resolve the dissonance. School choice seeks to ensure that your child’s individual needs are met, so don’t back down if you feel it’s not happening. Charters are public schools that should be committed to innovation and progress, not merely replications of a traditional classroom.

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