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Charter Schools: An Overview

written by: Mary Beth Adomaitis • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 11/27/2012

Charter Schools offer parents more options in choosing a school for their child as well as more options for teachers who are freed up from following strict guidelines and rules. Learn more about the Charter School Movement and how it affects teachers, parents, students and communities.

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    One of the growing alternatives to a traditional public school environment is charter schools. Based on the principles of choice, flexibility, and accountability, these primary and secondary schools are typically founded by parents, teachers, organizations, or other activists who feel limited by their local public school system.

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    Brief History of the Movement

    City on a Hill Charter School The charter school movement originated in the 1970s when teachers in New England received contracts or charters to explore new educational approaches. The first charter school opened under its state's charter school law was in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1992. Today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have charter schools.1 They are exempt from some of the rules and standards regarding education, but because they are governed by specific regulations set forth in their charters, there are mandatory guidelines that have to be followed. For instance, the charter can outline the degree which the school is autonomous from its authorizer, such as the local public school district.

    Charter schools receive some local, state and federal funds but also accept private donations. Because they operate independently of the local public schools, they are expected to produce higher student learning and test scores. These schools are comparable to public schools in that they are open to all students and are held accountable to state and federal academic standards. Charter schools are not private schools as they are tuition-free and non-sectarian.

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    Types of Charter Schools

    There are many educational styles and curriculums taught in charter schools throughout the United States, with each school's charter based on the community's needs. However, there are four basic models of charter schools:

    Start-up: Schools founded as new organizations; their charters can be with local school boards or the state's board of education.

    Conversion: Schools that originally were public schools but chose to convert to charter schools; their charters are with the local or state board of education.

    Classroom-based instruction: Schools operate traditional classrooms with teachers and hands-on learning; can be a start-up or conversion schools.

    Non-classroom-based instruction: Independent study and computer-based learning are used; these are also start-up or conversion schools.

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    Charter School vs. Public School Education

    City on a Hill Charter School 2 While many charter schools were converted from traditional public schools, there are several differences between the two educational institutions. For starters, although charter schools are also a type of public school, they don't receive all the same funding as their local counterparts. Charter schools only receive local and state funding according to its enrollment, but in many states, the amount is not equivalent to what the public schools receive. Other funding is received through private monies and donations.

    Another key difference between charter schools and public schools is the three basic principles which the alternative schools are based: 2

    Choice: Parents can choose to send their child to the charter school, just as it is the teacher's and principal's choice to work there.

    Flexibility: In accordance with its charter, the school is free to make its own decisions regarding the curriculum, the structure of the school day, and the hiring of certain types of teachers who meet the students' needs. They are free from traditional bureaucracy and educators can focus more on education than on "procedural hoops" and "paperwork hurdles."

    Accountability: The schools are held accountable by parents, authorizers, the state and, if applicable, its lenders. This accountability leads to higher quality schools and higher student achievement.

    Unlike public schools, students apply to attend charter schools as opposed to being assigned based on where they live. If more children apply than available desks, a lottery is held to determine which students will be accepted. Some charter schools also tend to have a theme, such as math, science, the arts or outdoor education.

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    Charter Schools Are Not Private Schools

    One of the common misconceptions about charter schools is that they are the same as private schools. Charter schools have more governmental regulations on the local, state and federal levels, and receive public funds for enrollment. Private schools do not receive any public funds, rely on tuition and private donations and have more freedom to structure the school as they see fit. Private schools need not be accredited like charter schools and do not require credentialed teachers. Another difference between these two types of schools is that private institutions do not have to accept all applicants.

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    Understand the Options

    Today's parents have many educational choices for their children. Selecting a charter school over a public or private school may be right if the other educational opportunities aren't applicable. It's best to understand what educational programs and curriculums are available before making a final decision.


  • 1. National Center for Education Statistics Fast Facts
  • Photos by *christopher* under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr
  • 2. Closing the Achievement Gap