Charter schools are privately operated, funded by taxpayers, focused on a particular theme with a unique curriculum that provide an alternative to public or private school education.
Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991 and in 2016 the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released its second edition of a model charter school law that Nina Rees, president and CEO of the organization, hopes will “help states to expedite the launch of new schools while holding schools and authorizers accountable for delivering a high-quality education to students.”
Betsy DeVos, who currently serves as the Secretary of Education, helped to design the Detroit charter school system and previously served as chairwoman on the board of Alliance for School Choice. She is a long-time promoter of charter schools and supports the President’s proposal for budgeting $1.4 billion more for school choice programs. In a statement issued by the Education Department in February, DeVos said: “Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.” She controversially pointed to historically black colleges and universities as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice …. their success has shown that more options help students flourish.”
How do charter schools work?
There is no tuition to attend a charter school and they are open to all students. The public funding for a public school student is transferred to the charter school along with the student. The school is designed as a partnership among students, teachers, and parents. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools states these schools work by creating an environment “in which parents can be more involved, teachers are allowed to innovate, and students are provided the structure they need to learn.” Teachers have more control over curriculum and make changes to meet individual needs. A charter school may focus on a STEM curriculum, or focus on almost any theme or culture, such as languages, special needs, performing arts, or college and career preparation. The school operates independently, governed by a contract or charter between school leaders and education officials in the state in which the school is located. The majority of charter schools are non-profit, single-site schools, 20 percent are run by non-profit organizations which operate more than one school, and about 13 percent are operated by companies for profit. The schools must meet state and federal education standards, as well as student achievement goals as set forth in their charters.
Perceived Pros of Charter Schools
Sometimes parents and/or students find that their neighborhood public school is not the best fit for them. The school may be too large, or not academically challenging, or the child just doesn’t fit in with the student population. Charter schools can focus on a particular interest of the child or provide a different environment than the local public school. Teachers in charter schools are more free to change traditional school years or days to adapt to what works best for the students. Curriculum and teaching methods are also more flexible. Some see them as an advantage for low-income or disadvantaged students.
Perceived Cons of Charter Schools
Some fear charter schools hurt diversity and equity efforts. A UCLA study found seven out of ten black charter school students attend schools with a minority population of 90 percent. Others are concerned about the lack of services for special education students. Critics of charter schools point to funding and accountability as major concerns. The organization or company managing the charter school has control of the budgeting of the funds received, and can pay lower teacher salaries, transportation fees, and special needs costs in comparison to traditional public schools. Instead of public representation on school boards, charter organizations appoint their board members and their actions are not subject to parental protest or community involvement.
Just as some public schools are better than others, some charter schools boast of all of their graduating seniors’ acceptance to college or higher test scores than students from any other school, while others are found to be lacking quality or demonstrate poor academic performance. The choice between a public school and a charter school is an important one that should not be made without careful research and thought.