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The truth about charter schools

Charter school is a loaded term. Prejudices abound and misconceptions reign. Here’s what you need to know when considering a charter school for your child.

By Psyche Pascual

Charter schools. Aren’t they private?

No, no! Charter schools are really small experimental schools with crazy classes in things like underwater basket weaving.

Nah  charter schools are totally cutting-edge  they're all about implementing the very highest academic standards.

That sounds like a euphemism for teaching to the test!

I heard charter schools are corrupt — they’re just a way for corporations to make money off the government.

That's not true! The charter schools I've heard about are amazing, but they're impossible to get into.

Overhearing a conversation about charters schools can be like the story of the blind men and the elephant — opinions can vary so widely that they seem to be describing different realities.

The truth about charter schools

So, what's the truth? Charter schools aren't one thing: they range from the smallest classroom — your child alone at your home computer — to multi-campus, nationwide organizations with dozens of schools. They include very strict schooling models with young scholars in uniforms sitting in rows to progressive places where barefoot kids learn academic subjects primarily through art projects, and everything in between.

What do charter schools all have in common? They are independent entities that have received a charter, which is a set of self-written rules (and promises) about how the school will be structured and run. Essentially, they are able to organize a school that’s outside the control of the local school district but still funded by local, state, and federal tax money. This allows charter schools to create free public schools that don't have to follow the same regulations as district schools. Sometimes this results in a very high-performing school, sometimes not. This approach to education tends to produce a more diverse range of schools than might traditionally be found within school districts.

One thing's for certain: the charter movement is spreading like wildfire across America. New Orleans became the first major American city to transform most of its public schools into charter-run operations in 2005. Today, more than two million students attend about 5,700 charter schools nationwide, each with its own rules and education model. In the 2011-2012 school year alone, 518 new charter schools opened, boosting charter school enrollment by 10 percent in a single school year, according to the Center for Education Reform’s June 2012 policy update.

Charter schools are like traditional public schools in important ways:

  • They take the same state-mandated standardized tests.
  • They don’t charge tuition.
  • They can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment.
  • They’re accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter.

Charter schools differ from traditional public schools in many ways:

  • How a staff is organized may be unfamiliar. For instance, there may be an executive director in charge of leadership, fundraising, and bureaucratic compliance above the principal, who deals with the day-to-day functioning of the school.
  • They can be run and operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization (CMO), such as Knowledge is Power Project (KIPP), which operates more than 120 elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation.
  • They can be run by private, for-profit entities that also provide the school’s curriculum. For instance, the company K12 operates virtual charter schools across the nation for more than 65,000 kids.
  • They can have a founding educational philosophy — such as Waldorf or Montessori — which determines the curriculum and teacher training.
  • They can hire teachers who are not part of a union or even credentialed, which is something to ask your local charter school about. Some charter schools hire teachers with credentials; in the state of California, all charter schools must hire credentialed teachers by law. And some CMOs hire unionized teachers — Green Dot Public Schools hires only unionized teachers for its four middle schools and 14 high schools.

Charter school groups often describe their efforts as a movement, a reaction to poorly run public schools. Many were founded by groups of committed parents or community leaders who wanted a larger role in shaping the quality of their schools. Parental involvement is often more than encouraged, it's expected. Many charter schools begin each year by asking parents to sign an agreement to support the school and their child's learning, including a pledge to contribute a certain number of volunteer hours.

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