Charter Schools Offer an Array of Choices

In many areas, charter schools give parents a wealth of alternatives to their neighborhood school.

By GreatSchools Staff

Charter schools are public schools that have flexibility in structuring academic programs, hiring teachers and carrying out other functions. The degree of freedom that charter schools have differs by state.

What makes a charter school different?

  • Charter schools must be nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory in all programs, enrollment, employment and other operations.
  • Charter schools cannot charge tuition, although some schools charge for preschool, before- and after-school programs.
  • Charter schools are free to set their own discipline, personnel and curricular practices, but they must meet state academic standards and comply with the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Most charter schools offer:

  • Smaller class size (20 to 25 students) than traditional public schools
  • An alternative way of delivering instruction
  • A specialized education targeted at a particular population of students that is not well served by traditional schools, such as at-risk or performing arts students
  • Freedom from the bureaucracy that operates traditional public schools
  • High standards of fiscal and academic accountability. If the school doesn't manage its fiscal operations well or show gains in student achievement, it can have its charter revoked.

Why are charter schools so popular?

Charter schools provide parents with an alternative to their neighborhood school and an array of curriculum choices aimed at students with specific skills or special needs. Because charter schools are exempt from many of the laws and bureaucracy of the state education code, they can try new approaches and tailor their curriculum to their students.

Are charter schools better than my neighborhood school?

Some are and some aren't. Some schools have an innovative curriculum, small class size and have reported strong academic gains. Others have had their charters revoked because of poor fiscal management. Several nationally based for-profit companies have opened charter schools that have been praised as models of proven success and criticized as taking a cookie-cutter approach to education. It's up to you to be the judge.

Who starts charter schools?

Businesses, community leaders, teachers, parents, municipalities and school districts interested in creating an alternative education program can submit a charter proposal to the local school board. If a local school board denies the granting of a charter, the petition can be appealed to the county or state level. Upon approval, most charters are granted for an initial period of five years and receive funds from the state based on the number of students enrolled. After five years, the charter is reviewed and, provided that students are making academic progress and the school is fiscally accountable, the charter may be renewed for an additional five-year period.

What should I look for in a charter school?

Because charter schools are free to set their own discipline policies, personnel practices and build their own curriculum, here are a few questions you can use to ask the school principal to find out more about these areas:

  • What areas does the school emphasize in curriculum?
  • What is the school's approach to discipline?
  • How experienced are the teachers? How many are credentialed?
  • Why would this school be a better choice than a neighborhood school?
  • Who manages the school's budget? Is there an oversight committee?
  • What kind of parent involvement is required?

How do I enroll in a charter school?

Any child in the district can enroll in a charter school as long as there is space available. If space is limited, enrollment is done by lottery, although preference may be given to siblings of students currently enrolled and to the children of employees. Check with your local school district or particular school to find out registration dates and regulations.

Where can I find information about specific charter schools?

To find charter schools in your area, use the "Find any school's profile" search box at the top of our site to search by city or county. Charter schools are shown in a separate category under each district.