A Little History
Minnesota was the first state to pass a charter school law in 1991. There are now charter schools in over 40 states. Charter schools are often found in high poverty, low academic achievement areas, but there are a growing number of charter schools in middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods as well.
Because charter schools often have special interests such as the arts, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), and classical education, they are growing in popularity across the socioeconomic spectrum.
1. Charter schools are public schools and are thus funded with public tax dollars. Charter schools, however, do not receive all the same funds that traditional public schools receive. For example, in some states, charter schools do not receive parcel/levy tax monies. These are additional taxes that are approved by homeowners/voters specifically allocated to local public schools. As a result of less funding, charter schools tend to pay lower salaries.
2. Charter schools are open enrollment, but there are often long waiting lists and lottery systems for entry.
3. Charter schools are run by outside agencies that are independent of the school district. Charter schools have their own governing bodies such as a board and district/central office-like personnel. Some states require a local school district to sponsor (allow) a charter school to set up shop in their district attendance area, and there is some sense of partnership between the charter organization/school and the district.
However, there is a great deal of autonomy for the charter school. In this case, charter schools usually simply have to outperform the other schools in the host district on state standardized tests in order to renew their charter agreement. Also, when a local school district hosts a charter school, the charter school is allowed to rent district-owned school sites that would otherwise sit empty.
Other states allow outside charter school agencies to open a school anywhere without the approval from the local school district as long as they receive approval from a state-approved charter school authorizer. As a result, there is little to no partnership between the charter school and local school district, and the charter school is sometimes seen as a threat. These types of schools have a tremendous amount of autonomy with the authorizer overseeing the school.
4. Charter schools are often able to make changes more quickly because most charter organizations are small and have fewer layers of bureaucracy. In some states, charter schools can be as small as one school of 450 students. Imagine how much faster it could be to go through the change process.
5. Charter schools are primarily non-unionized. This means that staff members are considered employees at will, much like employees at any typical company. With two weeks notice, an employee can resign and likewise, an employee can be released during any time of the school year. Sometimes the absence of a union can also help move necessary changes along faster.
6. Charter schools sometimes tend to draw parents who are disgruntled and dissatisfied with their local public school. Sometimes, these parents are more difficult to satisfy because some things they didn’t like about their previous school may not necessarily have been an issue with the school. Sometimes charter school parents have a greater sense of ownership over the school because it was a school of choice. This can be a double-edged sword: positive because they may be more willing to volunteer and be involved, but negative as sometimes this can lead to a sense of entitlement.
Having worked in both traditional public and charter schools, I honestly see the benefits and drawbacks of both. I think the most important thing for a parent is to do some research and find the best school for her child.