What Are Charter Schools?

As the 2015-2016 school year begins, charter schools serve over 7% of U.S K-12 students in 42 states. Charter schools are public schools operating under a “charter” – essentially a contract entered into between the school and its authorizing agency providing the school with significant operational autonomy in exchange for performance.  The autonomy granted under the charter agreement allows the school considerable decision-making authority over key matters of curriculum, personnel, and budget. Charter schools are often not part of the state’s current districts and therefore have large if any zoning limits.  In exchange, the charter school is subject to periodic performance review and may be closed for failing to meet agreed upon outcomes. 

Each of the 42 state statutes enabling charter schools are unique but share a few common features that derive from charter schools being public schools. Charter schools must be non-discriminatory in admissions, serve all students including those with disabilities, and partake in their state's testing and accountability systems.  Each statute also establishes the entities that serve as charter school authorizers. Authorizers can be state education agencies, local school districts, higher education institutions or other designated entities. Authorizers are the agencies that grant the “charter” in response to an applicant seeking to open a charter school and perform ongoing charter school oversight duties as required by law. 

Charter applicants can take many forms as provided under state law such as groups of parents or charter school management organizations. The charter application itself provides detailed information as to the schools intended student population, governance structure, budget and other elements required to establish and operate a public school. The authorizer oversees its schools for the duration of the charters. Charter schools receive public dollars on a per pupil basis that may approximate funding applicable for local district schools depending on the state.. Funding is a pressing issue for many. Charter schools must secure funds to cover startup and other costs not faced by traditional schools. Acquiring a facility can be a great challenge. There are many philanthropic, state, and federal grant programs to assist with these costs. 

Governance is a core element of any charter school’s operation. The most common model of charter school board governance might be thought of as a sort of combination between school district boards of education (without local elections) and non-profit boards (though not generally private).  In nearly all states, charter schools are required to be not-for-profit and abide by open-record laws during board meetings.  

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Charter schools have grown in number every year since then. There is a wide array of charter school types. Charter schools may be specialized, either as to their programmatic focus (such as a STEM academy) or students served (prior drop-outs), though many simply serve mainstream populations with a distinct academic approach. There are charter schools in all sorts of settings – rural, urban, and suburban – and even online charter schools providing distance-learning opportunities. Some charter schools operate as neighborhood schools, having “turned-around” or “converted” traditional district school. Charter-district collaboration, which usually takes the form of a charter school within a traditional school in the same building, has become more prevalent. These collaborations create a relationship by which charter schools and traditional school districts can learn from each other.

Although there are some charter schools that have achieved remarkable results with students, the nationwide academic results of charter schools are inconclusive. Some recent studies have shown the average charter school student outperforms her peer in traditional schools; older studies have found no difference. Student achievement in charter schools is complex topic that was recently covered at length by the National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC) here.

The NCSRC exists to assist all charter schools in achieving their goals. Funded by the US Department of Education, the NCSRC began operating in 2010 and is a comprehensive collection of the information needed to build top-notch charter schools. Our thousand-plus resources, from reports on serving certain student populations to video case studies profiling high-performing schools, are meant to promote best practices. With 7% of the K-12 student population, charter schools have a big part to play in improving K-12 student outcomes and the NCSRC is here to help. As you navigate the website, please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions. 

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