WHAT IS A CHARTER SCHOOL?
A charter school is a public school that is created to meet students’ educational needs in unique ways. Charter public schools are given freedom from some rules and regulations that traditional public schools have to follow. In exchange for that freedom, a charter school is held to a high standard of achievement and accountability. If it succeeds, it continues to operate; if it does not succeed, it closes.
No students or teachers are assigned to a charter school by a school district. Parents choose to send their children, and teachers choose whether to apply to a charter school to teach there.
WHY DO WE NEED CHARTER SCHOOLS?
The educational needs of some children are not being met in their current school setting. Parents who want to change that setting, however, do not have that option unless they can afford to move to a different school district, pay private school tuition, or home school. Charter schools offer those parents the opportunity to send their children to – and even help design and/or govern – a public school that meets those needs. This results in a sense of “ownership” among the parents who choose to send their children to the schools, which leads to a higher level of parental involvement in helping the school succeed.
Many teachers, including those who may otherwise retire, are attracted to the smaller setting, the reduced paperwork, and the increased influence over school policy that charter public schools can offer. Especially with impending teacher shortages, these added benefits will offer a way to encourage teachers to continue teaching.
Local school districts can benefit because charter schools offer an opportunity for new teaching methods, new curricula, extra emphasis on reading or math or some other subject, variations in schedules, etc. to be tested in a smaller setting than an entire school district. As these methods are implemented, they can be “fine-tuned” much more easily in a small setting. Once they are perfected, other schools or entire districts can choose whether or not to adopt them on a larger scale. Another benefit for local districts is that charter schools can relieve overcrowding.
IS IT REALLY A PUBLIC SCHOOL?
Yes. Like other public schools, charter schools are prohibited from charging tuition or discriminating in enrollment; their students must take the same state standardized tests as those in other public schools; they must meet all applicable health, safety, and civil rights requirements; they are subject to financial audits in the same manner as a public school district; they are subject to the same guidelines on teaching religious doctrine as other public schools; and they must answer to either the local or state school board for their performance.
WHY IS IT CALLED A “CHARTER” SCHOOL?
A “charter” is a performance contract between the creators of the school and the local or state (or both) school board. It details the school’s mission, programs, goals, students served, and methods of assessing student achievement. It also identifies the criteria by which the school board will measure its progress throughout the term of the charter. The length of time for which a charter is granted varies, but in most states, it is granted for three-to-five years. At the end of the term, the board granting the charter renews the school’s contract if it has been successful.
HOW IS IT HELD ACCOUNTABLE?
A charter public school is accountable to the state or local school board (or both) to produce specific academic results, which are identified in the charter. They are also accountable for their fiscal practices. They are required to report their progress annually to several groups: the board that grants the charter, the parents who choose the school, and the public that funds it. The board which grants the charter may receive more frequent reports and may take action against the school if the situation calls for it. If parents are not satisfied with the school, they will remove their children, thus removing the money the school would receive for that child.
HOW IS IT FUNDED?
As a public school, a charter school is publicly funded, although it can accept private grants and contributions, just as other public schools may do. The public funding is provided according to the number of students attending the school. In short, the money follows the child. A charter school is not allowed to charge tuition.
In some states, charter public schools receive federal, state and local funds that would be spent on the child in a traditional public school. In other states, they receive only state and federal funds. In contrast to traditional public schools, charter schools do not receive funds for facilities, so they have to pay rent out of the other funds they receive. There are some special grants available from the federal government for charter school facilities, and some charter schools use donated space.
IS THIS THE SAME AS A “VOUCHER” SYSTEM?
No. A “voucher” system, in the few places where it has been implemented, generally provides parents with a voucher worth a certain amount of money which they can redeem at any school
they choose, including private schools. Charter schools are not private schools, so there is no chance of “public money going to private schools” under a charter school plan.
WHO ATTENDS CHARTER SCHOOLS?
Schools sponsored by a local district will be open to all students in that district. If room will allow, they may admit students from other districts. Schools sponsored by the state will be open to any student in the state. Organizers will be required to publicize the existence of the school and the procedures for enrollment. At least one public meeting is required where the organizers provide information and answer questions.
Charter public schools must have a fair and open admissions process, conducting outreach and recruitment to all segments of the community they serve. If more students apply than there is room to accommodate, names will be drawn, although limited preference (no more than 10% of the student population) can be given to teachers’ children and siblings of students already in the school. In the first year, preference may also be given to children of the organizers of the school, but they would be included in the 10% limit. Nationally, the student population at the average charter school is more representative of their area’s demographics than the traditional public schools around them.
WHO OPERATES CHARTER SCHOOLS?
Any person or business or organization or college may apply to the local school board or the state school board (depending on how the law is written) to be granted a charter. The exhaustive application process ensures that no one who is granted a charter will be a “fly-by-night” operation. First of all, the person or group must form a non-profit corporation specifically organized to operate a charter school, and they must obtain tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service. This process in itself will weed out those who illegally discriminate and others who are not willing to do the “due diligence” necessary to ensure a well-conceived operating plan. Other aspects of the application process, including review of the application by the local or state school board, require enough work and research to provide reasonable assurance that no inappropriate person or group will be granted a charter. However, if the application is complete and the applicants are deemed competent, a school board will not be allowed to reject the application simply because it disagrees with the approach the school will be using.
Usually the organizers comprise the original board of directors of the school, but an election is required in the first year of operation, where school staff and the parents of the students elect a more permanent board, the term of which is specified in the charter. Measures will be required to ensure fair and open elections.
WHERE DO CHARTER SCHOOLS MEET?
The short answer is: wherever they can find space! Because no funding is provided for construction, charter schools must fund their own classroom and office space within their operating budget. Usually this means they will lease space or have space donated to them, but in some cases in other states, they have raised funding to purchase or build a building.
HOW DO WE KNOW THIS CONCEPT WORKS?
The first charter school in the nation began operating in 1992; now there are more than 5,000 charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia. For the 2009-2010 school year, 419 new charter schools opened. A review of 98 research-based studies on the effectiveness of charter schools found that the overwhelming majority (88) indicated that charter schools have been innovative, accountable, and successful and have created opportunities for the children who attend them. They also have a positive “ripple” effect on traditional public schools within their jurisdiction. Surveys of parents whose children attend charter public schools have consistently shown very high satisfaction levels.
WHICH STATES HAVE CHARTER SCHOOL LAWS?
As of late 2009, 39 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, had passed charter school laws. This includes Mississippi’s neighbors Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.
Mississippi’s charter school law expired in 2009. In the 11 years Mississippi’s law was in place, there was only one charter school in the state, and that was an already-existing magnet school. This lack of interest was due to the highly restrictive and outdated requirements in the law. In fact, it was consistently ranked as the worst in the country by the Center for Education Reform in Washington, DC.
WHAT KIND OF FEDERAL SUPPORT IS THERE FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS?
President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are vocal proponents of charter schools. Secretary Duncan has placed a high priority on strong charter school laws as a condition of receiving some types of funding. Through the Public Charter Schools Program, the U.S. Department of Education offers grants to states, which then award subgrants to individual schools to assist them in planning, design, and initial implementation of new charter schools. Dissemination grants are also available to successful charter schools, with three or more years of experience, to support activities through which they help other groups open new or improve existing charter public schools. Charter schools are also eligible for funding under other federal programs.
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF PARENTS IN CHARTER SCHOOLS?
In addition to choosing a charter public school for their children, parents have opportunities for parental involvement ranging from volunteering in the classroom to serving on the board that oversees the school.