Whether you consider charter schools a welcome alternative to underperforming public schools or a flawed take on education reform or something in between, there’s no denying their growing popularity in the U.S. The first charter school opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and now there are about 7,800 charter schools enrolling 3.7 million students in 43 states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Though supporters maintain that charter schools improve education by giving parents more choices and offering students more creative approaches to learning, opponents say the innovation promised by such schools often doesn’t translate into strong academics. In truth, it depends on the school, the students, and the comparisons being drawn.

As you dig into your child’s educational options, use this primer to make a more informed decision about which learning environment best suits your child’s needs.

  1. Charter schools are a different type of public school.

    Charter schools provide alternatives to traditional public schools. In some states, students may enroll in a charter instead of the school assigned by their local school district. Unlike most public schools, charters don’t usually have an enrollment cap and can recruit students from a larger geographic area. Parents can choose any charter school in their district (or even outside of it, depending on the state), regardless of where the school is located.

    Like public schools, charters can’t discriminate by race, gender, religion, disability, etc., but enrolling can be difficult. Popular options may have too many applicants and thus rely on a random method of choosing students, such as a lottery. When you apply, ask about your child’s chances of being admitted.

  2. Less red tape and potentially more innovative.

    Charter schools must meet some public school regulations but usually not all of them. The degree of freedom a charter school enjoys varies greatly by state — in some states charters face many of the same rules as regular schools. In others they may be free to create their own curriculum or hire teachers without state certification.

    Because charter schools are generally granted more flexibility than regular schools, advocates argue that charters can develop more innovative programs. They are accountable to their authorizers for results but are free to try different ways of helping students achieve at higher levels.

  3. No two charter schools are alike.

    Some charters cater to specific populations, such as students who are interested in the arts or those with learning or behavioral challenges. Others offer a thematic or specialized curriculum, such as language immersion or STEAM-based programs.

    Charters are more likely to be found in urban areas and are three times as likely to be located in big cities. In general, charters serve more low-income students and children of color, although school populations vary greatly from one community to another.

  4. Charter schools are run by large and small companies, parents, teachers, community groups, and nonprofits.

    Charters can also change management and be operated by different groups over time. When researching a charter school, it’s important to know who started it, who currently runs it, and what its philosophy and financial status are.

    Many charter schools are less than five years old. Most are small in size, serving fewer students and offering smaller class sizes than regular public schools.

  5. Academic results vary.

    Charter school regulations vary greatly from state to state as do state-level achievement tests, which makes it difficult to compare school results or draw conclusions on a national basis. Parents who choose charters are often drawn to their small size and personalized learning environments, regardless of what the numbers say about academic performance.

  6. They receive state funding, generally based on enrollment.

    Similar to regular public schools, this funding is based on a formula for each child enrolled in the charter school. However, such formulas vary from school to school and state to state.

    In some states, such as Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota and New Jersey, charters receive less money than regular schools because states and districts withhold administrative fees. In other states, like California, additional funds are made available to charters to cover facilities and start-up costs.

    Many charters have ambitious programs that are not fully funded by state or district formulas and therefore do their own fundraising to obtain grants and additional donations. There is also a limited amount of federal funding to help start new charter schools.

    Funding for facilities can be a challenge for charter schools. In some cases, districts provide free space for charters or funding for charters to pay for facilities. But even with this support, charter schools often end up moving multiple times due to the difficulty of finding a permanent home. As you look at a charter school, be sure to ask about its facility status and whether it will need to move again in the future.

  7. Charter schools can be closed by their authorizers.

    Authorizers are the entities that grant schools their charter and monitor their performance. Depending on the state, authorizers may include charter boards, school boards, and universities. While each state’s charter law is a bit different regarding reasons for a school to be shut down, the key reasons schools close are:

    • They can’t recruit enough students.
    • They can’t find a stable space to operate.
    • They can’t manage their finances.

    While this sounds dramatic, in reality authorizers rarely close down charters. When researching a charter school, find out who authorized it and get a copy of the latest performance report generated by the authorizer. Some authorizers do in-depth reviews of their schools, so these reports can give you important insights about the school’s long-term viability.