A Divided Mind: Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Social Solutions Blog

A Divided Mind: Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Twenty-five years ago this month, Minnesota launched a new approach to education reform by creating the first charter school in the nation. In the quarter decade since, charter schools have spread to almost every state in the US, to Canada, and several other countries around the world.

Despite their prevalence, many parents and community members are still unclear about the relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools. The competition for public education dollars and concerns about privately-run public education raises the stakes in charter school conversations, making it difficult to find objective information and unbiased analysis.

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This side-by-side unbiased comparison of charter schools and traditional public schools is broken down into two parts. Part 1 will focus on an overview of how each school is structured and how they work. Part 2 will look at the strengths and weaknesses of each type of school.

Charter School vs. Public School: Creation and Governance

Public schools are the most common form of public education.
Typically, states create school districts that are individual (often independent) government entities. Each school district has the power to create and run any number of public schools. The district and its schools are governed by a school board that consists of elected officials.

The school board has ultimate authority over the schools and the district as a whole. Typically, the school board will appoint a superintendent to oversee the day-to-day operations of the district.

Charter schools are a unique kind of public education that forms when a private organization contracts with the government to run a school. The concept is similar to large companies contracting a separate food service or a janitorial company to clean and maintain their offices.

Each state has its own rules on which government entity can issue a charter and who can apply for one. In some states, only the state education agency can issue charters. In others, local governments, individual school districts, and even college and university boards have the power to issue charters.

Depending on state requirements, charter schools can be run by a group of parents or community members, an independent nonprofit organization, and even private, for-profit education management companies.

Charter schools are governed by whatever private organization received the charter. However, the private organization must follow the terms of the charter, which generally includes academic standards, goals or performance standards, and other regulations or rules. The agency that issued the charter has the power to close the school if they violate the terms of the charter, fail to meet academic standards, or become financially insolvent.

Charters are issued for a set period of time. In order to continue operating at the end of the term, schools must renew their charter.

Charter School vs. Public School: Funding

Public schools are funded by the state, with money disbursed to schools or districts on a per-student basis. States receive funds from state taxes and federal education grants.

Local districts or municipalities will frequently supplement state and federal funding with local property taxes. Independent school districts can often levy taxes themselves. In other states, districts are part of a county or municipal government that levies taxes and allocates the funds to the schools. Districts or the local government may also issue municipal bonds to fund major capital expenditures for public schools like new buildings or renovations.

Public schools supplement special programs or needs with nonprofit grants or local fundraising events, but the bulk of their operating funds are from tax revenues.

Charter schools are also publically funded. They receive per-student operating funds from the state just like public schools.

However, charter schools are limited in their ability to access funds from local taxes or municipal bonds. As a result, they have to rely on grants, awards, and donations for supplemental funding and capital expenditures.

Charter School vs. Public School: Accreditation and Academic Curriculum

Public schools are accredited by the state board of education.

Each state establishes state academic standards (i.e., test scores) and curriculum requirements that public schools are required to follow. Curriculum requirements describe what topics need to be covered for each subject and may mandate specific materials or textbooks that have to be used. They can also place restrictions on what topics may be taught, or prohibit schools from using certain books or materials.

Because public schools are designed to serve a wide range of students, they often include a significant number of elective courses and programs in addition to required curriculum.

Charter schools are accredited by a private board.

While charter schools are held to the same state academic standards as public schools, they have the flexibility to define their own curriculum.

They may adopt a wide variety of curriculum elements and often implement alternative or specialized teaching approaches. Many charter schools begin with the goal of offering a unique curriculum or using a certain teaching approach. Some may place special emphasis on arts, music, or science. Others may build a curriculum around alternative teaching approaches like the Montessori method.

Charter schools often serve a specific student population or have specific curriculum goals, and tend to offer fewer electives than traditional public schools.

Charter School vs. Public School: Admissions and Cost

Public schools are free and open to any student that lives within the geographic boundaries of an individual school or district.

Charter schools are free and may not restrict who can apply to attend the school.

Charter schools may not have the capacity to accept every student, and are required to select applicants by lottery. If a student wins the lottery, most states automatically accept their siblings so families don’t have to separate their children.

Once admitted, charter schools may set grade or attendance requirements for students to continue enrollment.

Charter School vs. Public School: Student Demographics & Community

Public school student demographics tend to reflect the surrounding communities because they rely on geographic boundaries for admissions.

Public schools tend to be larger than charter schools, often times enrolling a much broader student demographic with a variety of extracurricular activities.

Public schools are also required to provide a range of special education resources for students with physical and mental disabilities.

While charter schools cannot restrict which students may apply for admissions and must select students by lottery, most charter schools also target their recruitment and programs to a specific demographic. Some target communities of color or low-income families, while others may recruit students with specific experiences or interests.

Charter schools tend to be smaller than public schools. Students learn in a smaller, close-knit community, but have limited opportunities for sports, clubs, or performing groups. (Students usually participate in sports or other programs at nearby public schools if their charter school that doesn’t offer them.)

Charter schools are not required to offer special education classes and resources. While some include it as an explicit part of their mission, many don’t. Families with special needs students may not have access to the support they need at a charter school.

Charter School vs. Public School: Teachers

Public school teachers must meet all state certification requirements. State certification generally requires teachers to have specific training in education and teaching, and meet student teaching requirements. Secondary school teachers are typically required to be “highly proficient” in their subject area, meaning they have a bachelor’s degree and either majored or minored in their subject. More than half of public school teachers have a master’s degree.

The requirements for charter school teachers vary between states. Some states require charter schools to hire teachers with state credentials. Other states do not.

Even when states allow charter schools to hire teachers without credentials, the school may set their own education and training requirements. Some charter schools require advanced degrees to teach a certain subject or special training in specific teaching methods.

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