Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Amistad Academy StudentClosing the Achievement Gap | Click here to return to homepage
Inside AmistadThe DebateVideo StoriesCharter School FAQPass It OnResourcesThe Program

Charter School FAQ

> What is a charter school?
A charter school is an independent public school that operates independently of the district board of education. In effect, a charter school is a one-school public school district. A group of people — educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs or others — write the charter plan describing the school's guiding principles, governance structure, and applicable accountability measures. If the state approves the charter, the state funds the charter on a per pupil basis. In most cases charter schools operate under a clear agreement between the state and the school: increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability — consumer demand.
Back to top

> Why are charter schools so popular?
Proponents believe charter schools provide better opportunities for child-centered education and more educational choices for their children. Operators have the opportunity and the incentive to create schools that provide new and better services to students. And charters, bound by the high standards they have set for themselves, inspire the rest of the system to work harder and be more responsive to the needs of the children.
Back to top

> How do charter schools differ from traditional district public schools?
Charter schools operate from 3 basic principles:

Accountability: Charter schools are held accountable for how well they educate children in a safe and responsible environment, not for compliance with district and state regulations. They are judged on how well they meet the student achievement goals established by their charter, and how well they manage the fiscal and operational responsibilities entrusted to them. Charter schools must operate lawfully and responsibly, with the highest regard for equity and excellence. If they fail to deliver, they are closed.

Choice: Parents, teachers, community groups, organizations, or individuals interested in creating a additional educational opportunities for children can start charter schools. Local and state school boards, colleges and universities, and other community agencies can sponsor them. Students choose to attend, and teachers choose to teach at charter schools.

Autonomy: Charter schools are freed from the traditional bureaucracy and regulations that some feel divert a school's energy and resources toward compliance rather than excellence. Proponents of charter schools argue that instead of jumping through procedural hoops and over paperwork hurdles, educators can focus on setting and reaching high academic standards for their students.
Back to top

> Who can start a charter school?
Parents, community leaders, businesses, teachers, school districts, educational entrepreneurs, and municipalities can submit a charter school proposal to their state's charter authorizing entity. For additional information on how to start a charter school, you can visit the U.S. Department of Education's Charter School Web Site.
Back to top

> Do charter schools have admission policies? Can they "pick" who attends?
By law, charter schools must have a fair and open admission process, conducting outreach and recruitment to all segments of the community they serve. They are public schools and therefore cannot "choose" which students attend. Like other public schools, charter schools are nonsectarian and nondiscriminatory in admission and employment practices. Charter school students are admitted on a first-come, first served basis, or by lottery when applicants exceed available slots. No tuition may be charged.
Back to top

> Who authorizes charter schools?
This varies from state to state, depending on the state's charter law. In California, for example, there are three types of authorizers: the governing board of the school districts, county boards of education, or the state board. In Pennsylvania, individuals or groups seeking to establish a charter public school must apply to the local school board of the district in which the school will be located. Generally there are four types of entities allowed to authorize charter schools: the local school board, state universities, community colleges, and the state board of education.
Back to top

> How are charter schools funded?
Charter schools are public schools and like district public schools, they are funded according to enrollment (also called average daily attendance, or ADA), and receive funding from the district and the state according to the number of students attending. However, in a number of states, they do not receive the full equivalent of their district counterparts: Minnesota charters only receive the state portion (about 75% of a district school's total per-pupil allocation); charters in New Jersey and Colorado also receive less than 100% of the per-pupil funding. In other states, charters must negotiate their funding in their charter contract, often below the level of funding of their district counterparts, and then make up the difference through grants and donations. In addition, unlike traditional district schools, most charter schools do not receive funding to cover the cost of securing a facility. Conversion schools (charter schools that were once public or private schools) begin with established capital, namely the school and its facilities. A few states provide capital funding to start-up schools, and some start-up schools are able to take over available unused district space, but most must rely on other, independent means. Recent federal legislation provides funding to help charters with start-up costs, but the task remains imposing.
Back to top

> Do charter schools take money from public schools?
Charter schools are public schools. When a child leaves for a charter school the money follows that child. Proponents say this benefits the public school system by instilling a sense of accountability into the system regarding its services to the student and parents and its fiscal obligations. For more information on common misconceptions surrounding charter schools, see CHARTER SCHOOLS: Six Common Criticisms from Opponents—and Proof That They are Unfounded.
Back to top

> What is the difference between charter schools and private school vouchers?
Voucher plans allow parents to use their tax dollars that would otherwise be used toe educate their child in a public school and apply those dollars towards tuition at a private or religious school. These schools may charge some amount beyond the voucher and may not have to accept all applicants, depending on the voucher program guidelines. Charter schools, on the other hand, are public schools that allow parents to exercise an option to have their child educated at a school outside of the traditional district system. Charter schools must accept all students on first come-first served basis or by lottery and cannot charge tuition.
Back to top

> How do charter schools impact the public school system?
Charter schools provide a variety of services to children that arguably place healthy pressure on the district to provide equal or better services. In 2001 the U.S. Department of Education released a major study called The Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts. They reported that more than half of traditional districts created new educational programs in response to charter schools. Proponents maintain that charters schools also increase accountability in many districts.
Back to top

> Do charter schools work?
Every charter is different, and may of them are new. But their general success is consistent. An August 2001 report from the Center for Education Reform found that in 65 research studies done on charter schools, 61 found that charters overall provided innovative, accountable and successful. To read CER's 2003 summary of charter school research findings—overwhelmingly supporting the viability and success of charters—see What the Research Reveals About Charter Schools.
Back to top

> What if a charter school fails?
If a charter school doesn't live up to the terms of its charter, it's closed. Proponents site this as proof of charter schools' accountability. Poor academic performance can be a factor, as can financial and management issues. Only 47 or 1.5% of all charter schools in operation last year were closed.1
Back to top

> When and where did the first charter school open?
The charter school movement has roots in a number of other education reform ideas, from alternative schools, to site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice, privatization, and community-parental empowerment. The term "charter" may have originated in the 1970s when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or "charters" by their local school boards to explore new approaches. Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval. In the late 1980s Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them "charters." Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota where charter schools were developed according to three basic values: opportunity, choice, and responsibility for results.

In 1991 Minnesota passed the first charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had signed laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2003 that number increased to 40 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Charter schools are one of the fastest growing innovations in education policy, enjoying broad bipartisan support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, former President Clinton called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by the year 2002. In 2002, President Bush called for $200 million to support charter schools. His proposed budget called for another $100 million for a new Credit Enhancement for Charter Schools Facilities Program. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has provided grants to support states' charter school efforts, starting with $6 million in fiscal year 1995.
Back to top

> How many charter schools are there currently?
According to the 2004 National Charter School Directory put out by the Center for Education Reform, there are 2,996 charters schools operating for the 2003-2004 school year, serving 741,949 children in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Included are the 309 schools that opened their doors this past fall and the 63 new schools already approved to open next year.
Back to top

> How can I find a charter school in my area?
If you are interested in finding information about charter schools in your area, contact your state charter school resource center.
Back to top

For additional information, please visit:

Amistad Academy FAQs

Center for Education Reform - Charter School FAQs

U.S. Department of Education Charter School FAQs

1 From "Resistance hinders success," USA Today, May 3, 2004



Home | Inside Amistad | The Debate | Video Stories
Charter School FAQ | Pass It On | Resources | The Program | Site Credits

© 2004 Corporation for Educational Radio & Television | PBS Privacy Policy