What Is a Charter School? Definition and Overview
What is the charter school definition? Charter schools are an alternative educational option for students in primary and secondary school. They are considered public schools, because they do not require students to pay tuition. However, they usually operate outside of the public school system and are not held to the same standards in performance, curriculum, and more.
Charter schools are allowed to operate once they are granted a charter or a contract that outlines the schools mission, goals, structure, etc. States grant charters to the schools for certain periods of time, and then the charter has to be renewed. What are charter schools for? The purpose of a charter vs. a public school is to offer an environment for students that fosters independence, motivation, and one that caters to the students’ needs in a smaller environment.
Management and Structure of Charter Schools
After answering what is a charter school, you're probably wondering how they're run and who runs them if they're separate from the traditional public school system. Is a charter school a public school?
Charter schools receive the majority of their funding from public money, and can also receive private donations. Essentially, they operate using public school funds, but have much less accountability than a standard public school. Many charters hire management companies to oversee the finances of the school, since the finances are independently managed by the school, and it is up to the school to determine where the money goes and how it is spent, without state oversight or the oversight of a school board. Other schools have a special board or group of administrators who work for the school and oversee the management.
Non-Profit Charters vs. For-Profit Charters
The majority of charter schools are non-profit. Not all states allow for-profit charter schools in their states, and many states are pushing to make sure all charter schools are not for profit. For example, the state of California recently banned all for-profit charter schools. Nonprofit and for-profit schools function in basically the same way if they have companies overseeing the funding and finances. So if you’re looking at charter schools in those states, make sure to do your research.
The only difference is that technically, a for-profit school can profit by keeping some of the funding provided, or for charging students for services other than tuition. As I mentioned, for-profit schools are not as common.
3 Benefits of a Charter School
There are a lot of great reasons to choose a charter school. Charters can offer a lot of opportunities that traditional schools can't, and provide creative and innovative learning environments for students.
Small Class Sizes
Charter schools are often smaller in size overall and have smaller class sizes which allow students to receive individualized attention. This is a huge benefit since research shows that smaller class sizes are more productive and beneficial for the students.
Potential for Innovation
Since charter schools are not tied to the public school system, it’s easier for them to innovate and make decisions based on what’s working and what's not working. This includes changes in classes, teaching style, and what students are doing individually, as well as on a school-wide level.
There is less red tape and bureaucracy if a charter school wants to make a change or finance a new project. The school operates independently as far as finances, so basically, if the school wants to buy new supplies, start a renovation, or provide a trip or activity for students, they can just do it providing it’s within their budget
On that note, charter schools do receive public funding but also receive private funding, and therefore often have more funding than a public school, particularly in underfunded areas. Charter school funding is not tied to test performance the same way public schools are.
More Choices for Students and Parents
In a standard public school setup, students go to the school that they’re “zoned” for and there aren’t other options if that school isn’t a good fit for that student.
Charter schools offer an option for sending students to a school that’s a better fit, without the cost of private school or having to move. This is an important factor when considering charter schools vs. public schools.
3 Drawbacks of a Charter School
Of course, charter schools are not for everyone and you also have to consider some key drawbacks. Keep these factors in mind when doing your research into the schools in your area.
Teachers are not always required to have the same certifications as public schools. Some teachers at charter schools didn’t major in education, which may affect their teaching style and qualifications.
Also, teachers are sometimes paid less than in traditional schools, and are expected to work more depending on the school. They don’t have the typical protections of teachers in a public school system which can lead to poor performance and struggling students.
There is less accountability in charter schools. So if a student is struggling, it may be difficult to identify the issues at hand, and students may struggle academically before anyone is alerted to the problem and/or a solution is found.
Management and Funding Concerns
There is also controversy regarding how charter schools spend their money, specifically regarding management companies, and the ethics of giving taxpayer money to schools that don’t have space for all students, and that doesn’t have accountability to the state.
Additionally, charter schools do not have space for all students who would benefit from the charter school system. Especially in schools that are successful, spots are very hard to come by and rely on lottery systems, or have rigorous application processes. For this reason, charter schools tend to pull out high performing students from public schools, which disproportionately affects the funding for both the charters and the local public schools.
For-profit charters specifically also offer tax incentives that make them vulnerable to corruption, which is an additional concern to keep in mind if you do have for-profit charter schools in your area. When you are looking at schools, make sure to separate what is a charter school and what isn't, so you don't get roped into paying tuition and fees for schools that present themselves to look like a charter school but actually aren't.
Charter Schools vs. Public Schools
Many students don’t thrive in a public school environment, whether it’s because student needs smaller classes, require independent study time, or need a more creative environment.
Some parents also prefer the independence of a charter school environment, since they don’t have to adhere to a strict curriculum and standards set by the state.
Charter schools also vary in the level of parental involvement. Charter schools often require more involvement on the parents’ part in academics, like regular contact with teachers, but less in other areas, like volunteering for events or extracurriculars, or making donations.
Both charter schools and public schools offer online options. This varies by state, but if your child is considering going to school online, then the charter school’s online program might be a better fit.
Is a Charter School Right for You?
Being able to choose a school is a huge opportunity, and charter schools are still a fairly new option for students in the United States. Whether or not a charter school is right for your child will depend on a lot of factors, including the public school system in which you live, and the student themselves. Consider the following when deciding on schools. You can also look into examples of successful charter schools to see how a school compares.
Consider Your Child's Learning Style
One of the main reasons kids go to charters is to give them a better education with more individualized attention.
If your child learns better in small environments, or adapts well to non-traditional teaching methods
Consider Parental Involvement
Many charter schools expect people to be more or less involved than a traditional public school. When you do your research, make sure to talk to other parents who will give you honest answers about what the school expects from parents.
Weigh the Pros and Cons of Charter Schools vs. Public Schools in Your Area
The decision to send a child to a charter school is often influenced by the state of the local public school. Unfortunately in the United States the quality of public schools varies greatly from city to city and state to state. Charter schools can also vary in quality, and can be better or worse than your local public school in several ways, including funding, supplies, teacher qualifications, and more
Knowing this information about your local schools takes a lot of research. Since so many students attend public school, you should be able to access this information about your public school easily. Websites like GreatSchools.org rank public and private schools.
You can also check to see if the charter school you’re considering has ratings or reviews. Reviews from parents and attendees will point out something the school itself won’t, and you might find more honest information.
Research the Management and Teaching Style
As we discussed, some charter schools are run by management companies or businesses, and others are run by administrators or a board.
Part of the benefits of charters is that there’s typically less red tape than a regular public school. Make sure that the management allows for innovation, and has systems in place to maintain accountability.
Teachers also play a huge part in the charter school experience. Look into reports and reviews on how the school treats their teachers, and what to expect from them. Other parents are also a valuable resource when researching this, as do the teachers themselves.
Research the School's Funding
Charter funding is not exactly the same as public school funding, so make sure that the school is adequately funded and has their charter. Transitioning to a new school if the school loses funding may be difficult for your child.
Also, you want to make sure the school has funding to successfully support your child and other students better than the public school.
Charters can also take donations in some cases, so if you’re uncomfortable sending your child to a school that takes donations from certain companies, this may be a factor.
Education is an incredibly important stepping stone in any child’s life, and charter schools can offer a valuable choice for students who do not thrive in public school environments. Like any major decision, deciding whether or not to send a child to a charter school needs to be thoroughly researched, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Remember that charter schools can vary greatly depending on where you live, so make sure you research specific schools in your area and pay attention to the details.
Interested in alternative education options? Our guide to online high school can help. And if you're interested in dual enrollment, read all about How to Find the Best Online College Courses and How to Get Your GED Online.
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Carrie holds a Bachelors in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, and is currently pursuing an MFA. She worked in book publishing for several years, and believes that books can open up new worlds. She loves reading, the outdoors, and learning about new things.