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Charter Schools Demystified

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Updated on Jan 18, 2008

Gone are the days of simply choosing between a public or private school. Now your choices are so abundant, the process can be overwhelming. Public, private, parochial, charter, alternative, magnet – the list goes on. Plus, there's a lot of overlap in what these schools provide. The best way to start the decision process is to educate yourself about the different types to see which is right for you and your child.

In essence, a charter school is a tuition-free public school that functions autonomously, much like private schools, under charters approved by state government (or some entity authorized by the state). It must have open enrollment, employ educators with valid teaching licenses, and answers to a governing body.
 
Since a charter school is accountable, it can be shut down if it fails to deliver on its educational goals. John S. Ayers, Vice President for Communiations at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers explains that charters function under a performance contract. This means the school has the ability and opportunity to serve its students’ needs in return for a commitment to meet higher standards of accountability. Ayers says, “We feel that charter is the environment where such schools are more likely to be held properly accountable for performance and closed when they are not serving their students or holding the public trust.”
 
Started by parents, teachers, community organizations and not-for-profit companies, charter schools often take on a more grass-roots approach. While exempt from selected state or local rules and regulations, they still follow many of the same regulations as other public schools.
 
Charters are started for myriad reasons. Some are created with an express purpose--be it for gifted students or those interested in specific subjects. Parents select these programs for their children, as opposed to their children being placed in them. A subset of charter schools is geared towards problem-teens at risk of dropping out. However, most charters are started for families seeking a more traditional, back-to-basics curriculum.
 
So, if you're considering a non-traditional approach to your child’s education, your best bet is to speak with an authority at the schools you're interested in. Ask about the makeup of the school’s population, the school’s mission and perhaps schedule a visit while classes are in session, if permitted. This will give you a more in-depth overview of the school’s focus, its student body, and help you decide if it's the best path for your child.
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