Charter Schools vs. Public Schools: FAQs

Though the first charter school in the United States opened its doors back in 1992, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about this type of school. Recent discussions about vouchers have wrongfully included criticism of charter schools. See, vouchers refer to money from public sources that parents could use at private schools. Though charter schools are indeed schools of choice rather than those assigned by where you live, vouchers don’t apply to charter schools, because charters are public schools.

But even before the voucher debate came to the forefront, there has been contention among people in education about charter schools. Some opponents of charter schools think they poach the best performing students from public schools. Others cite the poor academic performance of charters. See how those two arguments contradict each other? That’s common when discussing charter schools, and here’s why–every charter school, like every public schools, is different.

Some charter schools are run by charter management organizations. Some are run by for-profit corporations. Some are run by local governance. Some charter schools focus on closing the achievement gap, other focus on Montessori or Waldorf curriculum, while other focus on college prep and readiness. Some charter schools are very high-achieving, while others have failing test scores. This isn’t so different from traditional public schools where even in the same districts you have some high achieving schools and some poorly performing schools. You have schools that focus on STEM and those that focus on arts.

Charter schools and public schools are a lot more alike than they are different, starting with the fact that charter schools ARE public schools. So how are they different and why are there so many conflicting stories and opinions about charter schools? Let’s look at some of the most frequently asked questions about charter schools to find out.

Q: What’s the difference between a charter school and a public school?

A: Charter schools are schools of choice rather than schools assigned becaused on where a student lives. Charters don’t have to follow district rules because they are governed independently Instead, they have to stay accountable to achievement results that were outlined in the charter. This gives charter schools more freedom to focus on the elements of education that they see as most beneficial. They must also show that they are financially stable and run in an organized manner. If they fail to show these things, charter schools can be closed.

Q: How does a school get to open as a charter school?

A: Groups of people who are looking for a new schooling alternative in an specific area can write a proposal for a charter schools. In the past, charters have been proposed by groups of parents, teachers, school districts, entrepreneurs, businesses, and concerned community leaders. Forty-three states have an authorizing entity (or entities) for charter schools that reviews the proposal. This charter authorizing group usually allows a certain number of charters to operate an be approved each year. If the charter is approved, the school must set up a school board, hire teachers, find a space for the school, and enroll students.

Q:How are charter schools funded?

A: Because they are public schools, charter schools are funded by the state and federal governments based on student enrollment. However, charter schools are usually funded at a significantly lower rate than traditional public schools–about 64% the amount as district schools. In additional, charter schools are not given money to secure a location and pay for facility management. Some states so offer capital funding to new charter schools and others allows charters to take over unused district space on existing school campuses, but most new charter schools have to raise the money for buildings and maintenance separately.

Q: Who goes to charter schools?

A: More than three million students across the United states attend charter schools. Charter schools often reflect the demographic characteristics seen at local public schools, through some charter specifically hope to close the achievement gap for certain populations. Students can sign up to attend a charter school and then are accepted based on a lottery system. Sometimes, preference is given to students who have siblings attending the school or to children of founders or teachers.

Q: Why are charter schools so popular in some areas?

A: Charter schools tend to be smaller than local public schools. This attracts families looking for more individualized attention and programming. Charter schools are accountable for the achievement of their students, meaning the academic programs can change often to meet changing needs of students. Unlike district schools where innovation may take longer because of district oversite, the local governance of charter schools allows for more iterative change.

Q: How are charter schools held accountable?

A: Because charter schools are public schools, students usually participate in the same statewide standardized testing at district schools. This allows charter schools to be compared directly to local schools.

Q:What are the challenges faced by charter schools?

A: The lack of funding impacts most charter schools in a big way. Because the schools must cover the facility costs, they rely on grants and federal and state programs to help. These programs are often inadequate to cover all necessary costs. The lack of funding, in some cases, can impact teacher salaries. Charter schools don’t always hire experienced staff due to budgetary constraints. Quality programming is also an issue for charter schools. Because of the popularity of charter schools, many of the authorizing entities are overwhelmed and not providing oversight. This means that very low-performing charters remain open and cause th reptatuation of all charters to sink.

Q: Why do some people oppose charter schools?

A: Charter schools are given the freedom to innovate and sometimes that doesn’t work or lead to immediate results. Achievement results for charter schools have been inconsistent and lumping them all together, like detractors do, doesn’t always show a positive impact for the schools. And, it’s true, many charter schools close due to poor performance. Sometimes charter school boards are not subject to election, leaving the school to be run by whatever group has the most power (or offers the most money). In some cases, charter schools are exempt from teacher certification rules, meaning a less experienced staff. And lastly, back to the funding issues. Through charter schools get less attendance money per student than district schools, that is seen as money that is leaving the district. Every student who attends a charter school is zoned for a specifical district school. If they dont’ attend that school, the district doesn’t get that money.

So, what do you think? Are charter schools the villains they’ve been made out to be? Is there room for improvement in the process of how and where students attend public school? So long as every school’s goal is providing children with excellent educations, can charter schools and traditional public schools find a way to coexist?

Amanda Ronan
is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since then, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to homeschooling moms, writing blogs, long-form articles, curricula, and educational guides. In addition, she is the author of the YA series, My Brother is a Robot, and an ebook for teachers, A Fresh Look at Formative Assessment.