What, Exactly, Is A Charter School?

What is a charter school? The definition is “a public school operated independently of the local school board”. It sounds simple and straightforward, but the reality is that charter schools are an extremely complex and controversial topic. Charter schools were first introduced in the early 1990’s in response to a nationwide call for sweeping public education reform. Most states passed legislation where they would allow the formation of some publicly funded “experimental” schools to give parents an alternative to the traditional public schools that were under so much fire at the time.

What does “experimental” mean? First of all, charter schools are not part of a school district. They are independently run businesses that follow a private school business model, except instead of charging tuition, they get public funds. In a traditional system, the school districts set the curriculum for the schools in their domain, receive money from the state, and distribute it among the schools. In the case of charter schools, the individual schools set their own curriculum and receive money directly from the state. Niki Mohr, a teacher at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a charter school in Pacoima, CA says “Personally, I think our school is more efficient with money than a school district because we do not have district administration costs to pay, so more money goes directly to the classroom.”
The other part of “experimental” is that charter schools are required to have something about them that sets them apart from a regular public school. Every school is unique. Some schools choose alternative teaching methodology that the founders believe will be more effective, such as Montessori or independent study. Some choose a distinctive curriculum that they believe will help enrich the students’ overall education, such as foreign language studies. Most choose a combination of both. And, there are some specialized charters that target specific types of learning problems or developmental handicaps.
But wait, don’t magnet schools also offer alternative teaching methodology and curriculum, too? Are magnet and charter the same thing? No. Magnet schools are part of a school district. They teach over and above district criteria. Charter schools simply teach a different curriculum than is found in the local district. Magnet school students consistently do better on standardized test scores and have higher graduation rates than regular public school counterparts. Charter school results are all over the board. Some schools do incredibly well, some don’t. Remember, charter schools are experimental. Some concepts and ideas that sound good in theory don’t always work out as well in reality. Jennifer Simmons, from New Albany, IN, started her daughter at a Montessori charter school in kindergarten. “The school was across town” she says “and with driving across town twice a day, I felt like I wasted half my day. And the school wasn’t all that good. The older students were teaching the younger kids, and sometimes they would teach my daughter to spell a word wrong. My poor daughter would be confused when I would re-teach her things. I wound up pulling her mid-semester and putting her in the local school. I have been happy with the local school. I think the teachers are better and now that I don’t have the long drive, I have time for other things.”
How do charter schools come into existence? It starts with a group coming together to form a business plan. Usually, the group is made up of teachers and parents within a community, but anyone can form a group. The business plan includes a detailed outline of the planned curriculum, teaching methodology, and measuring systems to rate performance that is in line with state guidelines and criteria (in some rare cases a charter may get an exemption from certain criteria if they have a good reason). The plan is pitched to the state. If they approve the plan, the state will issue a “charter” for a certain number of years, ranging between 3 – 15. At the end of the contract, the school’s performance will be evaluated. If the school did well, the charter will be renewed, and if not, the school is closed. It may sound simple, but getting a charter school started is a complex process.
In setting up a charter school, a key concern is a suitable campus. Some charters are completely new schools, and they need to be housed in a state-approved facility. Finding such facilities can be tricky. More often, charter schools are housed on existing school campuses. Either the school was already closed for some reason, or the existing staff decided to break away from the district.
Why would a school break away from a district to become a charter? If the school’s parents, teachers and administrators feel that quality of education is being hampered by the district for some reason, a school may try to become a charter in hopes that they can offer a better education by setting their own curriculum. A perfect example is Vaughn Next Century Learning Center. Pacoima is a lower socio-economic community within Los Angeles, with a high number of students that are not academically equipped. The curriculum set by LAUSD wasn’t working for Vaughn’s student population, and with over 650 schools in the district to contend with, Vaughn’s concerns weren’t being heard by the district. In 1993, Vaughn broke away and the school’s performance immediately shot up. Vaughn was awarded the California Distinguished Schools Award in 1995 and the National Blue Ribbon Schools Award in 1996. Vaughn consistently performs better than its LAUSD counterparts within the Pacoima community.
Are charters a school of choice or are they an assigned local school? That is a good question, and the answer varies from school to school. Some charters, particularly ones that are converted from existing schools, are required to take neighborhood students. Parents from outside the neighborhood (but within a certain zone as determined by the charter) can apply for any seats that may be left once the needs of the immediate neighborhood are met. Some charter schools are only schools of choice and every parent has to apply. In all charter schools, if there are more applicants than seats, students are chosen by lottery. This is another major difference between charter and magnet schools. All magnet schools are schools of choice, and while some magnets do choose students based on a lottery system, most have academic requirements and won’t take students with behavioral issues.