Charter Schools

One of the most significant players in school choice today is the charter school. The charter school movement arose as parents and teachers became increasingly concerned about the quality of traditional public schools and began to seek a way to make improvements. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to create a law allowing for charter schools. Since that time, all but a few states have passed similar legislation.[1]  By 2018, “more than 3.3 million students in  over 7,500 schools and campuses.” [2]

Charter schools are public schools operated by independent parties. As such, they are largely free of the rules and regulations that weigh upon traditional public schools. Charter schools are public in the sense that they offer free tuition, have an open admissions policy, and are funded at least partially by taxpayer funds. Charter school students must also take government-mandated tests and meet federal standards.

Charter schools differ from district-run schools in management and operation. A charter school, as the name implies, holds its authority by a charter. The charter or “performance contract” is an agreement between the school and the local charter school authorizer. In the charter, the school founders outline school governance, the budget, personnel policies, curriculum, academic goals, and an accountability plan. A typical charter is good for three to five years, after which the school must seek reauthorization. This timeline provides a strong incentive for charter schools to not only achieve academic success but also back it up with statistics from their school.

A charter school may be founded or sponsored by a group of parents or interested citizens, a nonprofit, or even by a business. The founding group must complete a rigorous application process with the local charter-granting authority. Depending on the district, this may be the local school board, the state board of education, a university or college, a nonprofit, or an independent board established for the purpose of chartering. The authorizing entity is responsible for reviewing the charter school proposal and, if the charter is granted, for holding the school accountable to the terms of the charter. If a charter school fails to meet the established benchmarks, the authorizer may revoke the charter and close the school. This system is in marked contrast to a traditional public school, which usually receives more funding when it fails to meet benchmarks.

Although charter schools are eligible to receive state and federal funds, the amount given is determined by enrollment, and the schools usually receive less per-pupil than traditional public schools. In addition, in several states charter schools are responsible for finding and maintaining their own facilities. Consequently, many charter schools raise additional funds from individuals and interested organizations.

  • Provides incentives to teachers. Because charter schools are typically free from union regulation, they are often in a better position than public schools to offer incentives to attract talented and aspiring teachers.
  • Built-in incentives for excellence. Charter schools have an incentive to compete for students because, as researchers Matthew Ladner and Arwynn Mattix point out, they do not raise taxes: “All public funds provided [to charter schools] come on a per-student basis, meaning that charter schools must gain the confidence of parents in order to receive funding.” In fact, research shows that the presence of a charter school can actually help improve the scores of public schools in the same or a nearby district because it inserts the missing element of competition.10
  • Strong accountability structure. Charter schools must meet the same academic requirements as traditional public schools but with fewer resources. Charter schools are accountable for producing the level of student achievement set forth in their charters or they face possible closure.

  • Mission-oriented. Charter schools are often inspired by a particular mission or need. Many schools have been founded to serve low-income and minority students who were being underserved by overburdened public schools.
  • Responsive to community needs. Because charter schools are often founded by a group of parents or interested citizens, they sometimes have a better grasp of, and ability to meet, the needs of the community. For instance, a particular geographic area might have the incentive to train students in a specific vocation or discipline. The Memphis Academy of Health Sciences (MAHS) Middle and High School, one of the first charter schools in Tennessee, instructs students with a special focus in the health sciences. This has potential to bring economic benefit to the Memphis area, which has become a hub for health science research, and it prepares students for successful careers.