What are Charter Schools?

— National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (Teachers College, Columbia University)
Updated on Jul 21, 2008

Charter schools are public institutions, supported by public funds. However, they have greater freedom from state rules and regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools are typically free to hire or fire personnel, design curriculum, and promote specific values. A charter school must negotiate a contract (charter), usually with a local school district or charter authorizer designated by the state. Each charter may vary, because each state has different education laws and each charter school is designed to be unique in focus or student clientele. However, all contracts describe school goals, how the school will be run, the amount of public money it will receive, and the degree of freedom it will be given.

For continued reading on charter school design, development, and law see the following NCSPE articles:
Occasional Paper 40: Scott, Janelle T. and Margaret E. Barber. 2001. “Charter Schools in California, Michigan, and Arizona: An Alternative Framework for Policy Analysis.”
Occasional Paper 77: Henig, Jeff, et al. 2003. “The Influence of Founder Type on Charter School Structures and Operations.”
Occasional Paper 79: Buckley, Jack and Simona Kuscova. 2003. “The Effects of Institutional Variation on Policy Outcomes.”


Why are charter schools controversial?

The charter school movement believes giving individual schools greater freedom makes education more effective, because the needs of each community are addressed. Less regulation means there are many different kinds of charter schools. Charter schools may serve gifted students, low-income families, or religious communities. Educators and politicians argue about whether it is good to have large differences between schools. The potential advantages and disadvantages of charter schools are listed below.

What are the possible advantages of charter schools?

  • Increased Innovation. Charter schools have the independence to try new forms of teaching and experiment with the best way to reach their students.
  • Increased Efficiency. Charter schools avoid a myriad of challenging government regulations and the interference of state officials.
  • Greater Accountability. Charter schools must attract students to succeed. If they do not attract sufficient numbers of students, they will close for budgetary reasons or their charter can be taken away.
  • Increased Competition. Charter schools treat education as a product and must compete for families as customers. This is an ultimate form of accountability.
  • Private Resources. Many charter schools have succeeded in attracting considerable philanthropic gifts to support richer programs.
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