Frequently Asked Questions

Topic #1: What is a charter school?

1. What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public elementary and secondary schools that are newly created or adapted from existing schools by developers to pursue specific educational objectives and are exempt from significant state or local rules that inhibit flexible management. Charter schools are not exempt from federal laws that cover equal rights, access and discrimination. Students attend charter schools by choice of their parents or guardians rather than by assignment by a school district. As public schools, charter schools are not allowed to charge tuition. If applications to attend a charter school exceed spaces available, enrollment is decided by lottery. 

Charter schools can be authorized by a variety of entities (see the question below). Performance contracts with authorizers govern a charter school's operation and covers issues such as academic goals and includes a description of how student performance will measured pursuant to required state assessments. Authorizers hold charter schools accountable. 

For more information about charter schools, see section 5210 of the U.S. Department of Education's presentation on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act's charter school provisions or visit the Open and Expanding focus area. There, you will find reports, articles, and briefs covering the basics, rigorous research, and profiles of successful charter schools.

2. What is a charter management organization?

Charter management organizations (CMOs) are organizations that contract with an individual school or schools to deliver management services. These services typically include curriculum development, assessment design, professional development, systems implementation, back-office services, teacher recruitment, and facility services.  

3. How do charter schools differ from traditional public schools?

Families have the choice to select the charter school that best meets the needs of their child. Charters are not confined to district boundaries and usually have more flexibility to innovate in curriculum, instruction models, and the school calendar. Charter schools report their performance gains and their financial viability to their authorizer. If a school does not meet the requirements of its charter, it can be closed more easily than a traditional school district. Many states authorize charter school for only five years periods, and renewal is contingent upon meeting goals.  

4. Who can start a charter school?

Parents, community leaders, teachers, school districts, educational entrepreneurs, and municipalities can submit a charter school application to one of their state's charter authorizing entities. The application will have to specify who will be on the governing board and nearly all states require the governing board to operate as a nonprofit entity.  

5. Who authorizes charter schools?

Local school boards, public post-secondary entities, and the state boards of education are the usual authorizers. They review applications for charter schools and then supervise the charter school if approved. States vary in authorizing structure and some allow only for the state board of education to authorize charters.  

6. Who attends charter schools? Whom do they serve?

Students in charter schools have similar demographic characteristics to students in nearby traditional schools. Nationwide, charter schools serve significantly higher percentages of minority or low-income students than the average for all traditional public schools. Charter schools accept any student that files an application. 

8. 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 to serve as labs for ideas that could then expand. 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 2015 that number increased to 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Charter schools have steadily grown every year for over a decade, enjoying broad support from governors, state legislators, and past and present secretaries of education. In his 1997 State of the Union Address, 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. Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has provided grants to support states' charter school efforts. 

9. How many charter schools are there currently?

Since the first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, the charter school movement has grown every years to more than 6,100 schools operating nationwide at the start of the 2015-2016 school year, serving about 7% of k-12 students in the nation. Information about the number of charter schools in each state can be found on the our States Connection page. 

10. How can I find a charter school in my area?

For information about public charter schools in your area, visit our state resource page [link] to browse by state. There, you will find additional information and a complete list of authorized charter schools in your state and district. 

7. Do charter schools work?

This is a complicated question. The NCSRC recently released on student achievement in charter schools exploring this topic. You can access it here

Topic #2: How are charter schools funded?

Do charter schools get public funds?

Yes, charter schools as public schools are the recipients of public funds. However, how much funding can vary widely depending on in which state the school is located. Certain states allow per pupil funding to follow students to charter schools and other do not. Federal school funding, such as Title I funds, do flow through to charter schools where applicable. 

Are there differences between what traditional public schools get and charter schools?

Traditional public schools typically receive much more local funding than charter schools, whose funding stems proportionally more from the state and national governments. A great cost charter schools face is acquiring and maintaining facilities. In the majority of states, charter schools do not receive public funds for this purpose whereas traditional public schools’ per-pupil allocation is not burdened by facilities-costs. Additionally, traditional public schools usually have access to funds from bond to which charter schools usually cannot access.

If charter schools face a funding limit, how have they have expanded so rapidly?

Many charter schools must rely on private donors to operate. Charter school management organizations (CMOs) have setup charter school networks to help alleviate the fundraising process. Although still lacking when compared to traditional public schools, many states have vastly increased the amount of public funds going to charter school over the last decade. And although the impression is charter schools are spreading very quickly, every year in the 21st century has seen growth in the number of charter schools. Students in charter schools nationwide constitute well under 10% of the students in all public schools.

What about extracurricular activities?

Considering their facilities limitations, some of even the most successful CMOs oversee charter schools that lack extracurricular opportunities for their students. Charter schools often focus on academics more than traditional schools due to the achievement gaps in their student populations. However, if the charter school is close to funding parity with traditional schools in its state, they may host a great diversity of extracurricular options. As with everything in the charter school sector, there is an immense amount of diversity when it comes to charter schools and extracurricular activities. Some charter schools use the flexibility of their charter to focus exclusively on items like architecture or music.

What regulates charter school finances?

For a charter school to open its doors, it must have a contract with an authorizer empowered by the state government to regulate charter schools. The contract lays out its funding plan and various pay structures. Moreover, in the vast majority of states, charter schools are required to be 501(c)(3) non-profits which requires public disclosure of certain financial information. The charter school’s supervisory board has final say over the charter school’s finances. 

Are charter schools inefficient with their funds compared to traditional public schools?

It is very difficult to characterize all charter schools on an efficiency scale. Some charter schools underperform with their students and some outperform traditional public schools with similar populations. On the whole however, charter schools achieve similar results to traditional public schools with proportionally less money.  

Topic #3: How are charter schools evaluated?

How do charter schools choose their performance goals?

Charter schools and their authorizers must agree on student academic achievement goals prior to opening the school(s).  These goals are written in the schools’ contract, or charter, in partnership with the authorizer.  

What assessments are used to evaluate the performance of charters?

In the charter, the schools and authorizer identify how the schools will assess student performance.  Charter schools were created to provide an alternative to traditional public schools, resulting in an independence in curriculum and assessment design.  Please contact your local school for specific assessment information. 

Do charter schools evaluate their finances?

Each year, the charter school is responsible to provide a timely, independent financial audit to their authorizer. 

Are teachers evaluated at a charter school?

Charter schools are public, independent schools, providing the school with regulatory freedom and autonomy from traditional state education policies.  Please contact your local school for more information regarding specific teacher evaluations. 

Do charters school students have to take the state standardized tests?

In the school contract, charter schools and authorizers agree on how the student academic performance level will be measured.  These assessments may include state standardized tests, or they may be other evaluation methods.  Please contact your local school for specific information regarding student assessments.  

How often are charter schools evaluated?

Charter schools must be evaluated at least annually and publish their reports with their authorizing organization.  The charter school performance and financial goals are evaluated using the agreed goals established in the schools charter.  Charters are typically up for renewal every 3-5 years.  

Can a charter school change their performance or financial goals in their charter?

When an initial charter is created between a school and an authorizer, a time limit for renewal is given; usually 3-5 years.  During the renewal time, the school contract may be revised or renegotiated by either party.  Additionally, authorizers may provide specific goals to struggling schools in an attempt to show satisfactory growth towards sustainable practices.  

Who is responsible for evaluating a charter school?

The charter school authorizer organization, whether it be a district, state, or another entity handles evaluating the school's performance annually. Charters have a high level of accountability and as such, are subject to closure if they are not meeting the prescribed terms of the school & authorizer contract.

Can charter schools be evaluated by parents?

While there is no formal evaluation protocol for parent feedback, charter schools are open.  Parents have the opportunity to share their opinions and history with the school and may withdraw their children if they are not satisfied with the school’s performance.  Charter schools were created to provide school choice to parents, and as such, a critical element to their success is based on enrollment of students by their parents.  

Topic #4: Acronyms

BL (Blended Learning)

A formal education program in which a student learns: (1) at least, in part, through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace, (2) at least, in part, in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home, and (3) the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience. The majority of blended-learning programs resemble one of four models: Rotation, Flex, A La Carte, and Enriched Virtual. The Rotation model includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation.

CE (Credit Enhancement)

Part of the Charter School Facilities program. The Department provides competitive grants to entities that are non-profit or public or are consortia of these entities to demonstrate innovative credit enhancement strategies to assist charter schools in acquiring, constructing, and renovating facilities through loans, bonds, other debt instruments, or leases.

CMO (Charter Management Organization)

A non-profit organization that operates multiple charter schools, as well as, launches new ones.

CoP (Community of Practice)

A group of people who share a craft and/or a profession. It is through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group that the members learn from each other and have an opportunity to develop themselves personally and professionally. CoPs exist in offline (i.e., physical) settings, for example, a lunch room at work, a field setting, a factory floor, or elsewhere in the environment, but members of CoPs do not have to be co-located. They form a “virtual community of practice” (VCoP) when they collaborate online, such as within discussion boards and newsgroups.

CSO (Charter Support Organization)

An organization that supports and provides guidance and advocacy to proposed and existing charter schools, as well as, the charter sector.

CSP (Charter Schools Program)

The Charter Schools Program (part of the U.S. Department of Education) provides money to create new high-quality public charter schools, as well as, to disseminate information about ones with a proven track record. Federal funds are also available to replicate and expand successful schools; help charter schools find suitable facilities; reward high-quality charter schools that form exemplary collaborations with the non-chartered public school sector; and invest in national activities and initiatives that support charter schools. Collectively these efforts are expected to increase public understanding of what charter schools can contribute to American education.

ED (U.S. Department of Education)

ED is a Cabinet-level department of the U.S. government. Recreated by the Department of Education Organization Act (Public Law 96-88) and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979, it began operating on May 4, 1980.

EL (English Learner, or ELLs, English Language Learners)

ELs are students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses. 

EMO (Education Management Organization)

Similar to a CMO, an EMO is an organization that operates multiple charter schools, as well as launch, new ones. However, an EMO is for-profit, whereas, a CMO is non-profit. 

ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act)

The ESEA was passed as a part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty" in 1965 and has been the most far-reaching federal legislation affecting education ever passed by the U.S. Congress. Its current iteration is known as No Child Left Behind.

LEA (Local Educational Agency)

As defined in ESEA, a public board of education or other public authority legally constituted within a State for either administrative control or direction of, or to perform a service function for, public elementary schools or secondary schools in a city, county, township, school district, or other political subdivision of a State, or for a combination of school districts or counties that is recognized in a State as an administrative agency for its public elementary schools or secondary schools.

NACSA (National Association of Charter School Authorizers)

NACSA is committed to advancing excellence and accountability in the charter school sector and to increasing the number of high-quality charter schools across the nation. To accomplish this mission, NACSA is the only organization in the nation working to improve the policies and practices of authorizers—the organizations designated to approve, monitor, renew, and, if necessary, close charter schools. NACSA provides professional development, practical resources, consulting, and policy guidance to authorizers. It also advocates for laws and policies that raise the bar for excellence among authorizers and the schools they charter.

NAPCS (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

NAPCS is the leading national non-profit organization committed to advancing the quality, growth, and sustainability of charter schools. They speak and advocate for the millions of students attending and hoping to attend a charter school. They provide assistance to state charter school associations and resource centers, develop and advocate for improved state and federal policies, and serve as the united voice for a large and diverse movement at the state and national levels. They focus on key policy priorities such replicating and expanding high-quality charter schools, lifting arbitrary “caps” on charter school growth, and closing the funding gap between charters and other public schools.

NCSRC (National Charter School Resource Center)

This website (J).The National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) is a comprehensive collection of the information needed to build top-notch charter schools. The NCSRC publishes and hosts hundreds of high-quality resources such as webinars, newsletters, and reports addressing the challenges charter schools face. There are specialized sections (focus areas above) on Common Core, English learners, facilities, military families, special education, and other areas. The NCSRC is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and operated by education consulting firm Safal Partners.

OCR (Office for Civil Rights)

The OCR is a sub-agency of ED that is primarily focused on protecting civil rights in Federally-assisted education programs and prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, handicap, age, or membership in patriotic youth organizations.

OII (Office of Innovation and Improvement)

OII’s mission is to accelerate the pace at which the U.S. identifies, develops, and scales solutions to education’s most important or persistent challenges. OII makes strategic investments in innovative educational programs and practices, and administers more than 25 discretionary grant programs managed by four program offices: Charter Schools Program, Parental Options and Improvement, Teacher Quality Programs, and the Office of Investing in Innovation. In addition, OII is home to ED’s STEM initiatives team and ED’s liaison to the military community. OII also serves as ED’s liaison and resource to the non-public education community through the Office of Non-Public Education.

OMB (Office of Management and Budget)

The OMB is the largest office within the Executive Office of the President of the U.S. (EOP). The director of the OMB is a member of the EOP. The main function of the OMB is to assist the president in preparing the budget.

SEA (State Education Agency)

An SEA, or state department of education, is a formal governmental label for the state-level government agencies within each U.S. state responsible for providing information, resources, and technical assistance on educational matters to schools and residents.

SWD (Students with Disabilities, also known as SPED, Special Education)

Children or students who require special education because of: autism; communication disorders; deafblindness; emotional disturbances; hearing impairments, including deafness; intellectual disability; orthopedic impairments; other health impairments; specific learning disabilities; traumatic brain injuries; or visual impairments, including blindness.