Just the FAQs—Charter Schools
The following are answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding charter schools and what they mean for students, educators, schools and communities. The answers to these FAQs are intended to provide only an introductory overview of key issues. Links are provided to take you to areas with additional information.
What is a charter school?
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.
Where Can I Find Charter Schools?
Go to the National Charter School Directory for a complete searchable listing of charter schools around the nation.
How Do Charter Schools Differ from Traditional District Public Schools?
Charter schools operate on three basic principles:
Choice: Charter schools give families an opportunity to pick the school most suitable for their child’s educational well-being. Teachers choose to create and work at schools where they can directly shape the learning environment for their students and themselves in innovative ways. Likewise, charter authorizers choose to sponsor schools that are likely to best serve the needs of the students in a particular community.
Accountability: Charter schools are judged on how well they meet the student achievement goals established by their charter contracts. Charter schools must also show that they can perform up to rigorous fiscal and managerial standards. If a charter school cannot perform up to the established standards, it will be closed. Check out CER’s State of Charter Schools for more.
Freedom: While charter schools must adhere to the same major laws and regulations as all other public schools, they are freed from the red tape that often diverts a school’s energy and resources away from educational excellence. Instead of constantly jumping through procedural hoops, charter school leaders can focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students.
Some charter school programs focus on the basics — reading, writing, and the traditional school subjects with which some students struggle. Other schools have special arts or music programs. Some charters look just like traditional public schools, and some serve a particular community. Some are dropout prevention programs, adult education programs, online programs, charters that serve day care needs, and charters that work with children who want to go to college.
Why Are Charter Schools So Popular?
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.
Click here for more about Americans’ Attitudes Toward Charter Schools.
How Do Charter Schools Work?
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 2014 Charter School Laws Rankings & Scorecard.
• 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.
The Founders: Virtually anyone can submit an application to open and operate a charter school. Parents, educators, museums, civic groups, business leaders, service organizations, and teachers have started charter schools in the United States. Charter schools are started when community members see an educational need and decide to actively address it.
The Board: Every charter school is required by law to have a board of directors that is ultimately responsible for what the school does. Legally, the board oversees the operations of the school and makes sure it is financially sound and follows the law. The Board also helps to create the vision for how the school should operate, and is often made up of parents of children attending the charter school.
The Teachers: Teachers choose charter schools because these schools help them avoid the frustrations of constant bureaucracy. In addition to hiring the same certified teachers as traditional public schools, charter schools can hire qualified individuals that often have significant professional experience in their subject area, but may not be traditionally credentialed. This allows many charter schools to offer an education infused with real-world experience.
The Authorizers: The role of the charter school authorizer is to first approve charter applications and then monitor the schools to ensure success. The more organized and active an authorizer is, the more likely problems within individual charter schools will be uncovered and fixed early. Authorizers are ultimately responsible for the operational and educational integrity of each charter school they sponsor and for closing any that fail to function responsibly. Depending on the state charter school law, authorizers can be local school boards, state boards of education, state universities, state departments of education, or separate independent entities created by law that have as their sole duty sponsoring and overseeing charter schools in the state.
How Are Charter Schools Funded?
Charter schools are public schools. Like 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.
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?
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.
For the latest research from CER and other policymakers, be sure to visit the Choice & Charter Schools Research section.