What is a Charter School?

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Thursday, July 9, 2015 10:55:00 AM

As charter schools continue to grow in both size and numbers, the attention from local and national media has followed suit.  Although they are more popular than ever before, many voters do not have a firm understanding of their history or how they operate.  This post is intended to give the reader an objective insight into the world of charter schools. 


Charter School Overview


Put simply, a charter school is an independently operated school that receives public funding from the state.  The schools are often built in areas where public schools systems are failing to produce desired results.  Charter schools receive less funding than public schools, but they are also subject to fewer rules and regulations. On average, charter schools serve more low income and minority students than traditional public schools. 




Ray Budde, a Professor from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is credited with creating the charter school concept in 1974. However, it wasn’t until nearly two decades later that Minnesota became the first state to pass a charter law in 1991.  Since that time, 41 states and the District of Columbia have done the same.  There are now roughly 2.3 million students being served at over 6,000 charter schools throughout the United States.


How do they work?


First, a charter school is founded by either a university, non-profit, activist group or other community member.  They receive partial funding from the state (with the amount varying from state to state) and compensate for any necessary remaining funds through sponsorship organizations, grants, or private donors.  On average, funding for charter schools equates to $7,131 per student compared to $11,184 for their public district counterparts.  Once chartered and funded, the school opens an application process for students to enroll. 


One of the major appeals of charter schools is an increased operational autonomy, meaning that they are not subject to many of the procedural requirements that guide public schools.  Much like private schools, charter schools do not require teachers to have the same educational licenses or credentials that public schools mandate.  However, most charter schools adhere to the public standard of hiring highly qualified teachers. 


The increased control and flexibility for charter schools allows staff to create a culture and system that better fits the needs of students.  In exchange for this increased freedom, the schools are held accountable for student achievement and strong academic results that are outlined in their charter contracts.  Charter schools that fail to meet these standards are forced to close.


Public Perception


Public opinion on charter schools is mixed.  While there exists strong support for the successes of charter schools closing achievement gaps in failing public school districts, there are still numerous oppositions.  The major criticism surrounding charter schools relates to accountability and transparency.  Although they receive public funding, charter schools often are not required to share where they are allocating funds.  In Ohio, the state Congress is currently examining legislation that would address issues related to charter school finances. 


Bottom Line


Although we may see some changes in the way they operate in the coming months and years, it’s safe to say that charter schools will not be going away any time soon.  After 15 years of successfully educating millions of privileged and underprivileged children alike, they have cemented themselves in the educational framework of our country. 


In next week’s post, we’ll take a more detailed look at the congressional battle over charter school law in Ohio. 

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