Charter schools are independent publicly funded schools allowed freedom to be more innovative, while being held accountable for improved student achievement. They are typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract or "charter" with the state or jurisdiction. In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards articulated in its charter and are exempt from selected state or local rules and regulations. Charter schools foster a partnership between parents, teachers and students to create an environment in which parents can be more involved, teachers are given the freedom to innovate and students are provided the structure they need to learn, with all three held accountable for improved student achievement. Charter schools operate under a clear agreement between the state and the school: increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability — consumer demand.
Charter schools are… • innovative public schools; • designed by educators, parents, or civic leaders; • open and attended by choice; • free from most rules and regulations governing conventional public schools; • and, accountable for results.
Why are charter schools so popular?
Proponents believe charter schools provide better opportunities for child-centered education and more educational choices for their children. Operators have the opportunity and the incentive to create schools that provide new and better services to students. And charters, bound by the high standards they have set for themselves, inspire the rest of the system to work harder and be more responsive to the needs of the children. Charter schools provide higher educational quality, focus on the kids, and promote safer, stronger communities.
Educational quality: The primary reason for the existence of charter schools is to make sure every child has access to a quality education. With the freedom and choice to do so, charters set higher standards and must meet them to stay in business. Most traditional district public schools stay in business no matter how poorly they perform. Charters are one of America’s tickets to a higher-quality school system.
Focus on the kids: Perhaps one of the most important features of charter schools is that they are set up around the needs of children, not around the needs of adults. The focus should always be on the kids, and programs should be designed to help children succeed, no matter what it takes.
Safer, stronger communities: Charter schools typically engage local businesses and other organizations to help provide resources and services to the school and its families. Many charter schools create a community hub, whether it is turning an inner-city ghetto into a bustling and safer neighborhood or bringing families in rural America together, charter schools have a proven effect on the strength and safety of a community.
Public charter schools are intended to improve our nation’s public school system. Charter schools are public schools because, while they operate independently of the school district, they are:
tuition-free and open to every student who wishes to enroll
non-sectarian, and do not discriminate on any basis
publicly funded by local, state and federal tax dollars based on enrollment, like other public schools
held accountable to state and federal academic standards
How do charter schools differ from traditional public schools?
Charter schools operate from 3 basic principles:
Accountability: Charter schools are held accountable for how well they educate children in a safe and responsible environment, not for compliance with district and state regulations. They are judged on how well they meet the student achievement goals established by their charter, and how well they manage the fiscal and operational responsibilities entrusted to them. Charter schools must operate lawfully and responsibly, with the highest regard for equity and excellence. A school’s charter is reviewed periodically (typically every 3 to 5 years) by the group or jurisdiction that granted its charter and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the standards are not met (U.S. Department of Education 2000). Unlike traditional public schools, if charter's fail to deliver, they are closed.
Choice: Parents, teachers, community groups, organizations, or individuals interested in creating additional educational opportunities for children can start charter schools. Local and state school boards, colleges and universities, and other community agencies can sponsor them. Students choose to attend, and teachers choose to teach at charter schools.
Autonomy: Charter schools are freed from the traditional bureaucracy and regulations that some feel divert a school's energy and resources toward compliance rather than excellence. Proponents of charter schools argue that instead of jumping through procedural hoops and over paperwork hurdles, educators can focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students.
Who can start a charter school?
Parents, community leaders, businesses, teachers, school districts, educational entrepreneurs, and municipalities can submit a charter school proposal to their state's charter authorizing entity. For additional information on how to start a charter school, you can visit the U.S. Department of Education's Charter School Web Site.
Do charter schools have admission policies? Can they "pick" who attends?
By law, charter schools must have a fair and open admission process, conducting outreach and recruitment to all segments of the community they serve. They are public schools and therefore cannot "choose" which students attend. Like other public schools, charter schools are nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory in admission and employment practices. Charter school students are admitted on a first-come, first served basis, or by lottery when applicants exceed available slots. No tuition may be charged.
Who authorizes charter schools?
This varies from state to state, depending on the state's charter law. Generally there are four types of entities allowed to authorize charter schools: the local school board, state universities, community colleges, and the state board of education. In Washington, there are two charter school authorizers: the local school board and the Washington State Board of Education.
How are charter schools funded?
Charter schools are public schools. Like traditional district public schools, they are funded according to enrollment (also called average daily attendance, or ADA), and receive funding from the district and the state according to the number of students attending. The ways and amounts at which charters are funded compared to their district counterparts differ dramatically within an individual state and even within individual communities within a state. Nationwide, on average, charter schools are funded at 61 percent of their district counterparts, averaging $7,612 per pupil compared to $10,441 per pupil at conventional district public schools.
Unlike traditional district schools, most charter schools do not receive funding to cover the cost of securing a facility. Charter schools that are “converted” from traditional public schools begin with established capital, namely the school and its facilities, but many newly started charters struggle to come up with the necessary funds. Only a few states provide capital funding to start-up schools, and some start-up schools are able to take over available unused district space, but most rely on other, independent means. Recent federal legislation provides funding to help charters with start-up costs, but the task remains imposing.
Do charter schools take money from public schools?
Charter schools are public schools. When a child leaves for a charter school the money follows that child. Proponents say this benefits the public school system by instilling a sense of accountability into the system regarding its services to the student and parents and its fiscal obligations. For more information on common misconceptions surrounding charter schools, see CHARTER SCHOOLS: Six Common Criticisms from Opponents—and Proof That They are Unfounded.
How Do Charter Schools Manage if They are Underfunded?
Necessity, as the mother of invention, is inspiring innovation in this area.
Facilities and Other Start-Up and Capital Costs: Many charter schools improvise by converting spaces such as rented retail facilities, former churches, lofts and warehouses into classroom, cafeteria, assembly and gym space, supplemented by the local YMCA, the public library and park, and the diner down the street. Once a charter school is more established it can acquire loans to move to a more suitable or permanent facility. State legislation and loan agencies are beginning to tackle this problem by providing start-up funding and providing charter schools with the information needed to obtain favorable loans.
The same is true of charter capital needs beyond bricks and mortar. School founders have managed on an ad hoc basis with the help of private funds or alternative credit routes, and especially the sweat equity of enthusiastic volunteers, parents, and local professionals. As the charter concept has become more recognized and successful, banks and corporations have developed ways to provide capital to charter schools at favorable rates.
Operational costs: Charter schools receive a portion of state and district operating funds, which are generally based on student enrollment counts. The portion is determined by the state legislation, and, in some states, is negotiated in the charter contract. A state’s charter legislation can determine that a percentage or up to a percentage of operating funds follows the students, but the actual acquisition of that funding falls upon charter school operators — sometimes no small task.
Categorical aid:Categorical federal education grant funds are also significant in operational expenses. These funds generally follow one of two routes before reaching schools: (1) either distributed directly by the U.S. Department of Education through its own application process, or (2) channeled through state education agencies that then distribute the funds in a variety of ways. Typically, state agencies distribute funds based on whether a charter school is recognized as its own local education authority or not. If it is recognized as such, charter schools may receive the money directly, rather than through the school district. The route is ultimately determined by the state legislation.
How do charter schools impact the public school system?
Charter schools provide a variety of services to children that arguably place healthy pressure on the district to provide equal or better services. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Education released a major study called The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts. They reported that more than half of traditional districts created new educational programs in response to charter schools. Proponents maintain that charters schools also increase accountability in many districts. The “Ripple” Effect: Conventional public school districts often view charter schools as a threat, but time has shown that these new schools can serve a valuable teaching role. Increasingly, members of the traditional public school system are turning to charter schools for examples of “best-practices” regarding everything from curriculum to staffing to teacher retention. The attitudes of leading administrators in the conventional public school system are also changing. Instead of viewing charter schools as nuisances, many realize the need for the improvement spurred by charter schools.
Research has shown that charter schools have a “ripple effect” on other schools. Pressure brought to bear on traditional schools causes them to do more and do it better. A few examples:
• In Thomas County, Georgia, where in an effort to raise its graduation rate from below 70 percent, the district opened up the Bishop Hall Charter School. By the end of the school’s first year, the county’s overall graduation rate increased to 80 percent, and rose to 90 percent in the second year.
• Indianapolis Superintendent Eugene White, after calling for a moratorium on charters, said, “Charter schools have been a pain and now [traditional public schools] are motivated… We will no longer feel sorry for our situation or make excuses for being urban and poor. We will now find new ways to create better educational options and opportunities.”
• In San Diego, the popularity of charter schools spanning grades K-8 prompted the district to expand seven conventional elementary schools up to grade eight in an effort to compete.
Do Charter Schools work?
Yes. In addition to the positive pressure they put on the public school system as a whole, charter schools satisfy and serve their primary constituents (teachers, parents, and students) by providing exciting and viable education in an inclusive, individual manner. A study in New York City found that charter school students are outperforming district school students in both math and English assessments. For example, almost 81 percent of charter school students in the sixth through eighth grades scores at or better than the grade-level standards, while less than 62 percent of their district peers did so. Although this is just one example of charter school academic achievement, many studies reflect charter schools’ academic successes.
Additionally, charter schools have been more successful at closing racial achievement gaps than district schools have been. A meta analysis of four different studies showed that Black students in charter schools scored 4.5 percentage points better than their district peers in English and 2.6 percentage points better in math. Through a series of education reforms that return power to parents, including charter schools, Florida’s Hispanic students now outscore the assessment averages for all races in 28 states, and their Black students outscore the average in 8 states.
Because charter schools are subject to the laws of the market, when they do not satisfy parents and do a good job educating students, they close due to lack of enrollment. This means that in states where charters are well-established, such as California and Washington, D.C., the advantage is often greater because bad charter schools tend to close over time, leaving a growing number of excellent charter schools that continue to satisfy their students and parents.
The Law: Before you can have charter schools, you must have a state charter school law. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have enacted charter school laws. (The eight states that do not have charter school laws are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.)
As is the case with most education laws, charter schools are born at the state level. Typically a group of concerned lawmakers drafts a bill that allows the creation of any number of charter schools throughout a state. The content of the charter law plays a large role in the relative success or failure of the charter schools that open within that state. CER has identified a number of factors that can work together to create an environment that promotes the growth and expansion of charter schools. Some of them are identified below, and for a complete assessment and explanation of charter school laws and where each state ranks, please see 2012: Charter School Laws Across The States — The Essential Guide to Charter School Law.
• Number of Schools & Applications: The best charter laws do not limit the number of charter schools that can operate throughout the state. They also do not limit the number of students that can attend charter schools. A poorly written law would set restrictions on the types of charter schools allowed to operate (new starts, conversions, online schools), hindering parents’ ability to choose among numerous public schools. A strong charter school law should also allow many different types of groups to apply to open and start charter schools.
• Multiple Charter Authorizers: States that permit a number of entities to authorize charter schools, or provide applicants with a binding appeals process, encourage more activity than those that vest authorizing power in a single entity, particularly if that entity is the local school board. The goal is to give parents the most options possible, and having multiple sponsors helps reach this goal. Additionally, it is important that the authorizing entities have independent power from one another to prevent creating multiple authorizers “in name only.” For more information on why multiple authorizers are important, please see our Multiple Authorizers Primer.
• Waivers & Legal Autonomy: A good charter law is one that automatically exempts charter schools from most of the school district’s laws and regulations. Of course no charter school is exempt from the most fundamental laws concerning civil rights. These waivers allow charter schools to innovate and try new learning strategies that traditional public schools cannot.
• Full Funding & Fiscal Autonomy: A charter school needs to have control of its own finances to run efficiently. The charter school’s operators know the best way to spend funds, and charter law should reflect this need. Similarly, charter schools, as public schools, are entitled to receive the same amount of funds as all other conventional public schools. Many states and districts withhold money from individual charter schools due to fees and “administrative costs,” but the best laws provide full and equal funding for all public schools.
Every charter is different, and many of them are new. But their general success is consistent. An August 2001 report from the Center for Education Reform found that in 65 research studies done on charter schools, 61 found that charters overall provided innovative, accountable and successful education. To read CER's 2003 summary of charter school research findings—overwhelmingly supporting the viability and success of charters—see What the Research Reveals About Charter Schools.
What if charter schools fail?
If a charter school doesn't live up to the terms of its charter, it is closed. Proponents site this as proof of charter schools' accountability. Poor academic performance can be a factor, as can financial and management issues. Only 47 or 1.5% of all charter schools in operation last year were closed. (From "Resistance hinders success," USA Today, May 3, 2004)
When and where did the first charter school open?
The charter school movement has roots in a number of other education reform ideas, from alternative schools, to site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment. The term "charter" may have originated in the 1970s when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or "charters" by their local school boards to explore new approaches. Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval. In the late 1980s Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them "charters." Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota where charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results.
In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Charter schools are one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy, enjoying broad bipartisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, former President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. In 2002, President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. His proposed budget called for another $100 million for a new Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools Facilities Program. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has provided grants to support states' charter school efforts, starting with $6 million in fiscal year 1995.
How many charter schools currently exist?
More than 2.3 million students attend school in 6,000 charters nationally. There are an additional 600,000 students on waiting lists.
In 2010-11, California enrolled the most students in charter schools (364,000), and the District of Columbia enrolled the highest percentage of public school students in charter schools (38 percent), representing 27,000 students. In that same year, more than 10 percent of public school students in Arizona were enrolled in charter schools. In 15 additional states, between 4 and 9.9 percent of public school students were enrolled in charter schools. Of the states with 4 percent or more public school students enrolled in charter schools, eight were in the West; three, plus the District of Columbia, were in the South; four were in the Midwest; and one was in the Northeast.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The Condition of Education 2013 (NCES 2013–037),Charter School Enrollment.
What can I do to support the charter school movement?
"The robust charter school movement is one of the most intriguing civic revivals of the past decade." Bruce Fuller
For charter schools to be successful, many resources are required to create the best educational opportunities for our local children, to include: a strong board representative of diverse skills , committed volunteers, talented educators, adequate facilities, and sufficient funding. Charter School boards must have a strong committed group of volunteers who are passionate about children, education reform, and autonomy for educators. Additionally, surveys must be complete in order to allow charter school to gather information necessary to help them create charters that will be most effective in meeting the needs of our local children.
If you are interested in supporting the charter school movement, you can apply to be a volunteer, participate in a survey, or become a donor.