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How Do Charter Schools Work?

Charter schools have been around since the 1990s, but many parents do not fully understand what they are and how they differ from other types of schools.

Charter schools are schools of choice—meaning that parents choose to send their children to charter schools; they are not automatically enrolled based on zip code. According to the latest data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, approximately 3.4 million students in the U.S. attend charter schools, with more than 7,700 schools in operation across the country.

These schools are publicly funded but privately managed. This unique operation model gives charter schools some degree of flexibility in terms of teaching methods and curricula, but they are still required to follow certain state requirements. 

Are charter schools public or private?

Charter schools are a type of public school. They are funded through taxpayer dollars and do not charge tuition.

Charter schools vs. traditional public schools

Traditional public schools and charter schools are both publicly funded and follow some of the same regulations. For example, both are open to all students and need to meet state academic standards. However, charter schools have more freedom than traditional public schools when it comes to curricula, staffing, and budgeting. The level of autonomy granted to charter schools varies from state to state.

Charter schools vs. private schools

Charter schools are often compared to private schools because both are schools of choice and tend to follow a specialized or accelerated curriculum. One of the main differences between these types of schools is that private schools charge tuition while charter schools do not. Additionally, private schools are able to restrict enrollment to students of a particular religion or background, while charter schools are open to everyone.

Who governs charter schools?

Before a new charter school opens, charter school operators are required to sign a contract with an authorized public chartering agency. The contract lays out the terms and conditions for the school’s operation and defines performance expectations.

To give you an idea of how important this agreement is—the word “charter” in “charter schools” refers to the contract schools have with their authorizer.

Authorized public chartering agencies vary from state to state but are usually government entities or nonprofit organizations. For example, in Arizona, most charter schools are authorized by the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools.

Even though charter schools are run by private organizations, they are held accountable by their local charter school authorizer. If a school does not meet certain performance standards each year, they will face disciplinary measures and may eventually be forced to close their doors.

Who can attend charter schools?

Charter schools are open to anyone. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are prohibited from giving any one group of students preferential treatment over another. There are no specific requirements for admission, meaning that your student does not need to pass an entrance exam.

To enroll your child in a charter school, you will need to fill out an application. Many schools have Open Enrollment periods in the fall for the following school year. If a school receives more applications than they can accommodate in a given school year, a lottery system is used to fill open seats.

What are some benefits of attending a charter school?

There are several reasons why parents might be interested in sending their child to a charter school.

  • Free to attend: Like all public schools, charter schools are tuition-free.
  • Accelerated or advanced curriculum: Since charter schools are exempt from certain state regulations, they have more freedom than traditional public schools when it comes to designing lesson plans. Charter schools often follow an accelerated curriculum that integrates STEM topics with liberal arts. They may also offer a broader range of subjects than other public schools.
  • High academic standards: Charter schools are required to meet state academic standards as well as any standards laid out by their local charter school authorizer.

Find out if a charter school is the right choice for your family

Even within the same city, the mission, curriculum, and focus of individual charter schools will vary greatly. As you explore different options for education, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may also wish to tour a school in-person before making a decision.

If you are looking for a tuition-free alternative to your child’s current school, it may be time to start researching charter schools in your area. For a full breakdown of education options available to you, download our free PDF, “A Parents’ Guide to School Choice.”

The BASIS Charter Schools network consists of 37 schools in Arizona, Louisiana, Texas, and Washington, D.C. All of our schools are publicly funded, tuition-free, and follow the world-class BASIS Charter School Curriculum. Our STEM-infused, liberal arts curriculum empowers students to achieve at globally competitive levels.

For more information, find a school near you and schedule a tour.

Amy Licht

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