Charter Schools. What are they? Charter schools fit in a niche between private and public schools. They are funded with public money (except for their facilities) and they are an alternative to regular public schools systems. A private group of people can submit and get approved a charter to run their own school. Charter schools receive waivers from public school districts in exchange for promising better academic results. Charters are usually given for 3-5 years, where an eye is kept on academic performance. If academic performance lags behind comparable public schools, then the “charter” is pulled and the school is closed.
Charter Schools are emerging as an alternative to traditional system of education. Since state legislatures passed charter law in 1990, charter schools have seen an enormous increase and reached over 3,400 in number. This phenomenal increase in the number of charter schools proves that it is an educational innovation that is not confined to reforming existing schools but given the avenue to creating new educational milieus. Chartering gives schools the freedom to tailor programs respecting the community needs. Chartering also allows the school to run autonomously of the existing public school system. Parents and educators are looking at chartering as a way to increase educational choice and innovation within the public school system.
In this article we will look at the history of charter schools, learn more about how charter schools are developed, find out some basic facts about charter schools today, look at both pros and cons for charter schools, and learn what to consider when evaluating charter schools for your family.
The formation and history of charter schools can be traced to reform ideas, from alternative schools, to site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice and privatization. The concept of “charter” schools originated in 1970s and is generally credited to New England educator Ray Budde. Budde suggested that groups of teachers be given contracts or “charters” by their local school boards to explore new approaches. Albert Shanker, past president of the American Federation for Teachers, also receives credit for helping move the charter school concept along in the late 1980s.
Then late 1980s saw schools-within-schools in Philadelphia, which were called “charters”. When the experiment was successful, other places refined their approach and tried it themselves. In a similar endeavor in Minnesota, educators developed charter schools with three basic values: opportunity, choice and responsibility for results. Minnesota passed charter school law in 1991 and California passed it in 1992. Gradually, the number of states passing the charter school law increased from 19 in 1995 to 42 in 2004. Enjoying wide support, charter schools are now one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy.
For his proposed budget for 2006, President Bush asked for $219 million dollars in support in grants for 1,200 new and existing charter schools. He also asked for $50 million for a Choice Incentive Fund for an innovative voucher system that would allow parents to transfer their students to other public, private, or charter schools. Bush also asked for $37 million to help charter schools to help them obtain the needed credit to renovate, lease, or buy school facilities. While charter schools receive state and local money to help with operations, they do not receive money for their facilities.
What are Charter Schools?
Charter Schools are schools of choice. Choice to parents, students, teachers, and administrators. Parents and students get to choose to enroll in a school that may offer a unique learning environment, alternative learning methodologies, etc. Teachers and administrators get more authority to make decisions than most traditional public schools. Basically, these schools are free from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.
Charter Schools tend to be small schools (median enrollment is 242 students compared to 539 in traditional public schools) and serve different communities with a wide variety of curriculum and instructional practices.
Charters are granted for a particular period of time, usually for 3-5 years, which are renewed after the end of the term by the granting entity. A charter is a performance contract that provides details about that school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success – a business plan so to speak. These schools are under constant pressure to perform well, as they are accountable to their sponsor, usually a state or local school board for good academic results. The charter school administration must adhere to their charter contract. In fact, these schools enjoy greater autonomy in return for accountability. Instead of being asked to comply with various rules and regulations, they are measured on the yardstick of academic results and adherence to their charter.
Charter schools have shown promising, but mixed results over the years. Though more data is needed to get the overall picture, more or less these schools are faring well. On one hand there are success stories where some charter schools receive renewals of their charters because they met the goals of their charter. On the other hand, there are schools whose charters have been revoked due to lack of proper financial management or lack of achievement.
How Charter Schools Work
In order for a charter school to work, you have to have a) the proper state legislation, b) the people who want to run the charter school and c) the state’s authorizing entity (usually a board). To open a charter school, the administrators must first submit a charter school proposal to their state’s charter authorizing entity, which varies from state to state depending on the state’s charter law. For example, in California there are three types of authorizers: the governing board of the school districts, county boards of education, or the state board. Generally, four types of entities authorize charter schools: the local school board, state universities, community colleges, and the state board of education.
To better understand what a charter school is, you need to know what lawmakers seek to do by drafting charter school laws. In most states, they want to:
- Increase opportunities for learning and provide access to quality education for people.
- Create choice for parents and students within the public school system
- Provide a system of accountability for results in public education
- Encourage innovative teaching practices
- Create new professional opportunities for teachers
- Encourage community and parent involvement in public education.
- Leverage improved public education
The variation that can be seen in charter schools comes from two different directions. It can be because charter schools have unique missions and goal statement. Another reason for this variation is that different state charter laws, which have an impact on development of charter schools, govern different schools. The U.S. Department of Education information states that U.S. Charter Schools "laws cover seven basic policy and legal areas:
- Charter Development: Who may propose a charter, how charters are granted, the number of charter schools allowed, and related issues
- School Status: How the school is defined and related governance, operations, and liability issues
- Fiscal: The level and types of funding provided and the amount of fiscal independence and autonomy
- Students: How schools are to address admissions, non-discrimination, racial/ethnic balance, discipline, and special education
- Staffing and Labor Relations: Whether the school may act as an employer, which labor relations laws apply, and other staff rights and privileges
- Instruction: The degree of control a charter school has over the development of its instructional goals and practices.
- Accountability: whether the charter serves as a performance-based contract, how assessment methods are selected, and charter revocation and renewal issues.”
Facts about Charter Schools
The law states that all the charter schools must conduct fair and open admissions, and recruit all segments of the community they serve. However, the problem arises when the number of students seeking admission is more than the number that can be admitted. In this scenario, many charter schools use a lottery system or keep waiting lists. The school charter will state explicitly how their registration process will go. Some charters will give preferential enrollment to the following:
- children of teachers or otherwise employees of the school
- students who have previously been enrolled at the school
- children that are considered to be at-risk academically
- Enroll students so that the racial/ethnic balance parallels the regular public schools in the area.
Where are Charter Schools?
As of April 2005, 40 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws. Of those 41, only 38 states actually have charter schools.
The states that have passed charter school laws are: Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The following states have legislature that allows for charter schools to open but they don’t currently have any open: Iowa, Tennessee, Washington, or Maryland.
The following states do not have legislature in place that would allow charter schools to open: Alabama; Kentucky; Maine; Montana; Nebraska; North Dakota; South Dakota; Vermont; Washington; West Virginia.
As of 2005, about 3,400 charter schools operate in the United States. The states with the most charter schools are California (500), Arizona (491), Florida (258), Texas (241) and Michigan (210). On the other end of the spectrum, both Missisippi and Wyoming only have one charter school each. There are no charter schools in Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Main, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia (Source: Center for Education Reform) .
One more aspect about Charter Schools is they have similar demographic characteristics as compared to public schools. However, there are schools in some states that serve significantly higher percentages of minority or economically disadvantaged students than the traditional public schools. Some school charters stipulate that their racial/ethical break-down may not deviate from the break-downs in public schools within the same school district. In that case, the charter school can enroll students preferentially, so as to get the target racial/ethical break-down.
Charters are not allowed to charge tuition, and they are funded according to enrollment. States such as Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Jersey, receive less than 100% of the funds allocated to their traditional counterparts for the operation of public schools. In other states, like California, additional funds or loans are made available to them. In most states, charters do not receive capital funds for facilities. They are entitled to federal categorical funding for which their students are eligible, such as Title I and Special Education monies. Federal legislation provides grants to help charters with start-up costs.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Charter Schools
Here we will take the views of proponents and opponents of Charter Schools. Whether these positions affect you as an advantage or disadvantage depends on your own situation.
In a word: Choice. Students and parents get numerous education options from these schools. Charter school supporters argue that even for students who don’t attend the charter schools, their experience will benefit from the existence of charter schools as they force traditional schools to improve their academic programs in order to compete for a student body. Proponents believe that if managed properly, charter schools serve as laboratories for education experimentation and innovation. The easing of certain regulations can free teachers and administrators to develop and implement new learning strategies. At the very least, the pressure to perform rests on charter schools as the increased accountability for charter schools means that they have to perform well or face closure. This extra incentive certainly impacts the teaching environment at Charter Schools.
Opponents find fault in the fact that charter schools operate as a business in addition to a learning institution. According to critics, charter schools are subject to market forces, and can be forced by these forces to close and deprive students of a continuous education. Teachers’ unions are particularly against the charter school movement. Sometimes charter schools segregate students along the racial and class lines; they may also fail to adequately serve students with disabilities or limited English proficiency.
School Visit: Things to Look For and Questions to Ask
If you are considering enrolling your child into a charter school, you need to consider some high level points before you even visit the school. For example,
- Where is it located? Is the distance feasible for your family?
- How long into its charter is it?
- Has it shown academic progress?
- What teaching methodology does it embrace?
- How are students enrolled?
If you decide that a charter school might be feasible for your family, plan a visit to the school campus. For your visit make sure that you get to meet the principal and a few teachers. Finally when you are in school, ask questions and observe the environment. Some of the important points that a school should answer are:
- its educational philosophy or mission,
- its approach towards student discipline and safety,
- how it encourages and monitors students' progress,
- library resources,
- use of technology to support teaching and learning,
- school choir, band or orchestra, extracurricular opportunities,
- busing facility for the students,
- school’s policy to support students with academic, social or emotional difficulties,
- strategies used to teach students who are not fluent in English,
- professional development opportunities for teachers,
- academic progress compared to their charter requirements
To get complete knowledge about the school, you should observe details like:
- Do teachers seem enthusiastic and knowledgeable, asking questions to keep the interest of the students and keep them engaged?
- Does the principal seem confident and interested in interacting with students, teachers and parents?
- How do students behave in the school campus?
- How well are the facilities maintained?
Apart from these general questions there are some charter school specific questions also. So, do not forget to ask following questions:
- Why was this school created?
- Is this the permanent location or facility for the school? If not, will the school be moving to another location in the near future?
- Does the school have a specific focus?
- Who is the charter holder, or the group that created the school?
- How does the school select its teachers? Are the teachers certificated?
Charter schools are public schools of choice, chosen by teachers and students. They have an advantage of enjoying freedom from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. Generally, these schools give more authority to teachers and students to make decisions. Instead of being accountable for compliance with rules and regulations, they are accountable for academic results and for upholding their charter.
This freedom has given Charter Schools certain advantages. They have independence to try new forms of teaching, experiment and find the best way to reach their students; they avoid a myriad of challenging government regulations and the interference of state officials etc. However, there are some disadvantages too owing to this freedom. Charter schools treat education as a product; they may not help all students as admission requirements, transportation costs, and limited information can prevent disadvantaged students from attending a charter school.
If you are interested in attending a charter school, remember, you have the choice to do so. Your future of attending a charter school rests solely in your hands. Do your research and if you decide you want to try it, get your children enrolled.
To get information on the Charter schools one can go through National Charter School Directory published by the Center for Education Reform. The directory provides contact information and profiles of charter schools in operation nationwide. Besides, it gives information on schools such as arts-based, core knowledge and Montessori schools.