13 Things To Know About Charter Schools

1. What’s a charter school?

Charter schools are publicly funded, but independently operated, schools. By law, they’re open to all children and tuition-free.

Many charter advocates say they want to create choices for parents, particularly those parents who are dissatisfied with the traditional public schools in their neighborhood, by building new schools that are more innovative and flexible than their traditional counterparts. They also want to build classrooms that increase opportunity for poor kids and children of color. The key differences between charter and traditional public schools are how they’re governed and managed. Charters are afforded a greater degree of freedom by districts and states when it comes to issues of staffing, curriculum, instructional approach and finances, and to such basics as the length of the school day or year. They function under a contract, or “charter,” that governs all the details of the school’s operation — including name, organization, management, curriculum and student performance metrics. About one in five charter schools is operated by a non-profit charter management organizations. About one in 10 schools is run for profit.

2. Are charter schools more successful than public schools?

As measured by English and math standardized tests, most research finds that charter schools and traditional public schools perform similarly, with perhaps a slight advantage for charter schools. The most commonly cited national study looked at 27 states, covering over 95 percent of the students in charter schools. The report found small benefits to attending a charter school in terms of reading achievement, and no noticeable difference in math achievement — overall, the research suggests that the two sectors have substantially similar average achievement gains. A 2014 analysis examining 52 separate studies of charter school performance found that charter schools had positive impacts on both reading and math scores — though the reading difference was not statistically significant. Again the effects were relatively small.1 There is a small amount of research on charters’ effects on non-test-based outcomes — most of it is positive. A 2014 report found that charter schools in Chicago and Florida increased college attendance and adult income. A study of several Boston charter schools found that they helped more of their students attend four-year colleges than traditional public schools. Several studies find that charter schools on average benefit low-income students and students in urban areas. However, they also tend to find that charters have negative effects on achievement for students who are not poor.

* For a student who started at the 50th percentile of performance, attending an average charter school for one year would raise the student’s performance to 50.6% in reading and 51.4% in math.

3. How do charter schools get their charter?

The process varies from state to state. It usually takes into account the number of charter schools allowed — approximately half of states have charter caps — and evaluates the quality of each new school proposal. State laws dictate who has authorizing power, such as a state board, a university, or a district, and the roles those authorizers play in holding charter schools accountable for enrollment, achievement and finances. Some states have notably rigorous processes designed to winnow out weak school proposals. While the authorizers directly hold charters accountable for results, state legislators also pass laws about charter school operations and therefore — as is the case with traditional public schools — are held responsible, in theory, for their quality. When charter laws were first enacted, the main authorizers were school districts. Since then, states have moved to allow other types of organizations to become authorizers to allow for growth, foster competition and promote quality. While charter schools must have their charter reviewed by their authorizing agency after a set number of years, the length of the contract varies greatly from state to state. The National Association of Charter School Operators recommends five-year contracts, but in Louisiana it’s only three years. Some authorizers in Colorado have given out 30-year contracts.

4. How many students attend charter schools?

There are now about 6,400 charter schools in the United States, and more than 600 new charter schools opened their doors for the 2013-14 school year. Roughly 2.5 million students were enrolled in charters for the 2013-14 school year. That’s a 288,000-student increase from the year prior, representing nearly 5% of all public school students.

5. How do charter schools get their money?

Money for charter schools largely comes from public funds. Charter schools can also receive grants or subsidies from parent groups, education foundations, and other philanthropies. States have different approaches to paying for charter schools, often as complicated by political posturing as traditional education funding. Charter schools in some states receive less public money than traditional schools. For example, charter schools in Colorado and Minnesota receive less than 100 percent of the funds traditional public schools get for school operations. That said, apples-to-apples funding comparisons between district schools and charter schools can be extremely difficult to make. In some states, charters don’t get money to support building maintenance or repairs. In others, charters pay to rent buildings from the organization or company hired to operate the school. Charter schools can receive federal funding for which their students are eligible, such as Title I and special education money. Federal legislation provides grants to help charters manage start-up costs.

6. Are charter schools required to accept all kids?

Like traditional public schools, charter schools may not base admissions on academic ability and can’t discriminate against students because of their race, gender, or disability. However, in some cases, demand outstrips supply. When applications outnumber spaces available, lotteries are used to choose which students will get in. One estimate found that there are currently more than 1 million names on charter-school waiting lists across the country. However, some students may well be on more than one list. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools don’t have to admit students after the school year has started. Plus they don’t have to admit students at any grade level. Charter schools often choose to admit students only in certain “entry grades” and not to “backfill” seats in other grades. Some charter school advocates argue that all schools, including charters, should be required to backfill.
Although anecdotes exist that some charter schools selectively encourage some students to leave, a practice called “counseling out,” little empirical evidence exists to support this contention.

7. Do charters serve the same types of students as traditional public schools?

Although situations vary from state to state, in general charters tend to serve more black students, the same number of students in poverty, and fewer English-language learners and special education students than nearby traditional public schools. In New York City, English-language learners and students with disabilities are less likely to apply for admission to charter schools. The same trend appears to hold true for lower-income and lower-achieving students in Boston – even though such students stand to benefit from attending charters. These gaps may be caused in part by some charter schools’ admission demands. Advocates note that students with disabilities are underrepresented in charters. The National Center for Learning Disabilities claims that roughly one-third of charters are not accessible to children with physical handicaps and that some schools discourage special education students from enrolling.

8. Charters, magnets, vouchers: What’s the difference between choice programs?

Charter schools are publicly funded, privately managed, non-religious, free schools that are independent of any school district. Magnet schools are part of a local public school system, but students enroll or are selected based on an admissions process, not on geographic location. Magnet schools exist outside of zoned boundaries and typically have a special curricular focus, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), the arts, or vocational and career paths. Teaching and learning often are innovative, and in some districts diversity is emphasized. Magnet schools sometimes receive additional funding to enable them to spend more money on their students, supplies, teachers and educational programs. Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships to private, parochial or, in some cases, a public school in another district. Also, some states offer tax credits to parents who send their children to private schools, another way to promote choice. Rules differ from state to state on whether religious and other private schools subsidized with public dollars are publicly accountable for student achievement.

9. What is the ‘best’ charter school system?

There’s a growing body of evidence about which schools and which systems work better. A 2015 study of urban charter schools revealed that in Boston, the charter-school students performed dramatically better than their traditional-public-school peers in both reading and math — so much so that those students’ academic achievement would over time “catch up” to the statewide average in Massachusetts. In a comprehensive nationwide 2014 report on states’ charter-school policies the National Association of Charter School Authorizers argued that to be successful, a charter school system needs clear expectations, strong oversight and public transparency. That study named South Carolina, Indiana and Washington at the top of the rankings. Kansas, Michigan and Connecticut ranked last.

10. Can charter schools be closed?

Yes. In some states, charter schools are responsible and accountable for academic results and for upholding the promises made in their charters. They must demonstrate performance in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability. If a charter school does not meet performance goals, it may be closed. As of 2011, charter schools historically had experienced a 15 percent closure rate.

11. Do charter schools increase racial or socioeconomic segregation?

Potentially – but this is a point of significant controversy. A report from UCLA found that charter schools have higher rates of racial segregation than traditional public schools in the same state. Research in Minnesota and North Carolina showed similar results. Yet these findings have been challenged. A review of the UCLA report argued that it had failed to make apples-to-apples comparison and thus significantly overstated the extent of charter segregation relative to nearby traditional public schools. Similarly, a Brookings Institution report found virtually no correlation between increases in charter school enrollment and increases in segregation. Recently, some have called for using charter schools to enhance socioeconomic integration, and some charters have launched initiatives to better integrate schools.

12. How do charters affect neighboring traditional public schools?

In terms of achievement, most research suggests that charter schools either have no effect or a small positive effect on nearby traditional public schools with variation by location. A fairly large number of studies have found that the existence of charter schools spurs improvement in surrounding public schools. Other studies however have found no effect or mixed results, and at least two studies have found negative effects on achievement. In terms of achievement, most research suggests that charter schools either have no effect or a small positive effect on nearby traditional public schools with variation by location. A fairly large number of studies have found that the existence of charter schools spurs improvement in surrounding public schools. Other studies however have found no effect or mixed results, and at least two studies have found negative effects on achievement.

13. Are there charter schools in other countries outside the U.S.?

Many countries have school choice systems similar to charter schools, with varying levels of success. Great Britain, for example, has recently created ‘free schools,’ which are substantially similar to charter schools. A recent study from a conservative British think tank argued that the free schools help improve performance in neighboring traditional schools.

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