Charter School FAQ
This Issue Brief describes the general concept of charter schools; specific legislation may differ.
What is a Charter School?
A charter school is a public school that operates under a “charter,” or contract, that specifies the objective, academic goals the school promises to achieve. The school is then given freedom to achieve those goals without many of the restrictions that are placed on traditional public schools. They are then held accountable for achieving their promised results. If they succeed, they continue to operate; if they fail, their charter is revoked. Because charter schools operate in unique ways, no students are assigned to them by the district; parents choose to enroll their children there. Although existing schools might be allowed to “convert” to charter status, the most effective charter schools are new entities, created with an emphasis on a particular subject (such as math or science) or a particular educational approach (such as “classical” or Montessori), or an administrative philosophy (such as having teachers run the school), or targeted to certain populations, such as “at-risk” students. Charter schools must follow health and safety laws, but decisions on curricula, discipline, budget, schedule, and other administrative decisions are left to the discretion of the school. Forty states and Washington, D.C. have charter school laws, with 5,277 charter schools serving more than 1.8 million students.
We don’t have enough money to fund our current schools. Why would we want to create new schools?
It is important to note that the term “school” as used here refers to people, not a building. In most states, no money is provided for construction of new charter school buildings. (For more on this point, see the section titled, “Where do they meet?”) No extra money is required to fund charter schools. They operate on the same per-pupil spending amount as a traditional public school.
Is this the same as a “voucher” system?
No. A “voucher” system, in the few places where it has been implemented, generally provides parents with a voucher worth a certain amount of money which they can redeem at any school they choose, including private schools. Charter schools are not private schools, and cannot charge tuition, so there is no voucher needed.
Are they really public schools?
Yes. Charter schools are prohibited from charging tuition or discriminating in enrollment. The school must meet all applicable health, safety, and civil rights requirements. Their students must take the same state tests as traditional public schools, and they are subject to financial audits in the same manner as a school district. They are subject to the same guidelines on teaching religious doctrine as other public schools. They must answer to their public authorizer (usually the local or state school board or a state charter school board) for their performance, and they must issue annual reports, available to the public, that include financial statements, progress in reaching academic goals, and a measure of parental satisfaction.
Who attends and works at charter schools?
Parents choose whether to send their children to charter schools; children are not assigned to charter schools by the district. In many states, the student population at a charter school is more racially balanced than the nearest regular public school. Schools authorized by a local district will be open to all students in that district. If room will allow, they may admit students from other districts. Schools authorized by the state will be open to any student in the state. Organizers will be required to publicize the existence of the school and the procedures for enrollment. At least one public meeting is required where the organizers provide information and answer questions. If more students apply than there is room to accommodate, names will be drawn randomly.
Teachers choose to teach at charter schools (and charter schools choose their teachers); the district does not assign teachers to work there. Schools must inform parents concerning the qualifications of the teachers. Teachers may be eligible for the same health insurance and retirement benefits as teachers at regular public schools.
Who operates charter schools?
Any person, business, organization, college, or anyone else may apply to a public authorizer to be granted a charter. However, the exhaustive application process ensures that no one who is granted a charter will be a “fly-by-night” operation. First of all, the person or group must form a non-profit corporation specifically organized to operate a charter school, and they must obtain a tax-exempt designation from the Internal Revenue Service. This process in itself will weed out those who illegally discriminate and others who are not willing to do the “due diligence” necessary to ensure a well-conceived operating plan. Other aspects of the application process require enough work and research to provide reasonable assurance that no inappropriate person or group will be granted a charter. However, if the application is complete and the applicants are deemed competent, an authorizer will not be allowed to reject the application simply because it disagrees with the approach the school will be using. Usually the organizers comprise the original board of directors of the school, but an election is required in the first year of operation, where school staff and the parents of the students elect a more permanent board, the term of which is specified in the charter. Measures will be required to ensure fair and open elections.
Why do we need charter schools? Who can benefit from them?
The educational needs of some children are not being met in their current school setting. Parents who want to change that setting, however, do not have that option unless they can afford to pay private school tuition or to move to another district, or unless they are in a position to homeschool. Charter schools offer those parents the opportunity to send their children to – and even help design and/or govern – a public school that meets their child’s needs. This results in a sense of “ownership” among the parents who choose to send their children to the schools, which leads to a higher level of parental involvement in helping the school succeed.
Many teachers, including those who may otherwise retire, are attracted to the smaller setting, the reduced paperwork, and the increased influence over school policy that charter schools can offer. Especially with impending teacher shortages, this will offer a way to encourage teachers to continue teaching.
Local school districts can benefit because charter schools offer an opportunity for new teaching methods, new curricula, extra emphasis on reading or math or some other subject, variations in schedules, etc. to be tested in a smaller setting than an entire school or district. As these methods are implemented, they can be “fine-tuned” much more easily in a small setting. Once they are perfected, other schools or entire districts can choose whether or not to adopt them on a larger scale. Another benefit for local districts is that charter schools can relieve overcrowding.
How are charter schools funded?
In much the same way regular public schools are funded, charter schools are funded according to the number of students at the school. Depending on how the law is written, charter schools may receive the full amount of federal, state, and local funding that each student would have received in the traditional public school, or they may receive only the federal and state funding, allowing the local district to keep the local tax money that would have contributed to the child’s education. No construction funds are provided and no public debt financing will be allowed for construction. Because charter schools will be operated by non-profit organizations, they will be allowed to raise and borrow money, but they will not be allowed to levy taxes or issue bonds that obligate the state or school district to repay.
Where do charter schools meet?
The short answer is: wherever they can find space! Because no funding is provided for construction, charter schools must fund their own classroom and office space within their operating budget. Usually this means they lease space or have space donated to them. Private foundations and some credit unions provide funding when construction is necessary.