Issue Brief: Charter Schools

Charter School FAQ

by Forest M. Thigpen
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 is released from most state and local regulations in exchange for meeting specific, objective, academic goals. Although they may be existing schools, the most effective ones are new schools, created around a particular educational or administrative philosophy. Examples of this might include utilizing a “classical” form of instruction, or having teachers also serve as administrators. Numerous other possibilities exist. Health and safety laws must be followed, but decisions on curricula, discipline, budget, schedule, and other administrative decisions are left to the discretion of the school.

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. No money is provided for construction of new buildings. (For more on this point, see the section titled, “Where do they meet?”) The fact is that charter schools will not require more money; they will actually require less money because of the way they are funded, which is described below.

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, so there is no chance of “public money going to private schools” under a charter school plan.

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. 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 either the local or state school board for their performance, and they must issue annual reports, available to the public, that will include a financial statement, the progress in reaching academic goals, and a measure of parental satisfaction.

Furthermore, if the school violates its charter, it will not be allowed to continue to operate. If the school does not perform to the satisfaction of parents, it will lose students (and the money that follows the child) and will either have to improve its performance (to attract more students) or close. This is more accountability to the public – and to parents – than most other public schools.

Who attends and works at charter schools?

Parents choose whether to send their children to charter schools; the district does not assign students to them. In many states, more than half the students in charter schools are minority students, and in some cases, the percentage of low-income and disabled students exceeds the percentage of those students in regular public schools. Schools sponsored 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 sponsored 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, although limited preference (no more than 10% of the student population) will be given to teachers’ children and siblings of students already in the school. In the first year, preference may also be given to children of the organizers of the school, but that, too, is very limited.

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 will be eligible for the same health insurance and retirement benefits as teachers at regular schools.

Who operates charter schools?

Any person or business or organization or college or anyone else may apply to the local school board or the state school board 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 begin the application process for 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, a school board 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?

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 private school tuition 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 those 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 will be funded according to the number of students at the school and the amount the district spent in previous years. Schools chartered by a local district will negotiate with the district on the specifics of their funding. Schools chartered by the state will receive the amount the district spent per pupil two years prior. For example, in the school year 2008-09, a charter school’s funding would be calculated by multiplying the number of students at the school by the amount the district spent in the 2006-07 school year. Thus, charter schools will actually spend less per pupil than other public schools. And, since no construction funds are provided and no public debt financing will be allowed for construction, there will be even more savings to the public treasuries. Some people will be interested in the fact that the federal government has appropriated money to fund charter schools, with greater amounts available if the state has a strong charter school law (primarily meaning more freedom in the law to start new schools).

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 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 will lease space or have space donated to them, but in some cases in other states, they have raised funding to purchase or build a building.

How do we know this concept works?

The first charter school in the nation began operating in 1992; now there are more than 4,000 charter schools across the country, in 40 states and the District of Columbia. A review of 98 research-based studies on the effectiveness of charter schools found that the overwhelming majority (88) indicated that charter schools have been innovative, accountable, and successful and have created both “ripple” effect on traditional public schools within their jurisdiction. Surveys of parents whose children attend charter schools have consistently shown very high satisfaction levels.

Here are some specific stories:

Minnesota: The nation’s first charter school graduated 17 former dropouts, 15 of whom went on to colleges or vocational schools. The school is in a neighborhood where 40 percent of teens drop out of school.

California: The second charter school to open in California, has become a model of success as its test scores have put it in the top 10 percent of schools in the state. Its teaching techniques have been adopted not only by schools across the country but by the very public schools that once fought against its opening.

Colorado: The inherent flexibility allowed one of Colorado’s schools to add computers, reduce class size, and to double the time spent on reading, writing, and math.

Georgia: In Thomas County, where the graduation rate was below 70 percent, after a charter school’s first year of operations the county’s overall graduation rate increased to 80 percent, and rose to 90 percent in the second year.

Michigan: A Detroit charter school serves abused and neglected students, and even some with
criminal records.

Louisiana: Despite serving an extremely poor student population–94 percent of its students qualify for free lunch–the Children’s Charter School in Baton Rouge regularly scores above parish, state, and national averages on yearly standardized tests.

What are the potential problems?

One advantage we have in “getting in the ball game” this late is that we can learn from others’ mistakes. Most of the deeper problems in charter schools have resulted from weak guidelines in the charter school laws. As a result, we can be aware of those problems as the legislature considers bills to strengthen our law. Yes, Mississippi does have a charter school law, but it is considered to be the “weakest in the nation” because it only allows existing schools to “convert” to charter status and requires many hoops to be jumped through. The result is that there is only one charter school in the entire state (after more than a decade of the existing charter school law being on the books), and it was already a magnet school.

If Mississippi is to allow choice for parents, teachers, and school boards, and give students in our state the opportunity to have their educational needs met, a major change will be required in our current law.

Forest M. Thigpen is the President of Mississippi Center for Public Policy.