Charter Schools 101

Everyone seems to be talking about charter schools, but how many people really understand what they are, how they work, and what the goals of charter schools are?

The concept of charter schools is relatively new. University of Massachusetts professor Ray Budde first developed the idea of a charter school as an alternative to, but not a replacement for, traditional public school education. Albert Shanker, then the president of the American Federation of Teachers, embraced the idea of charter schools in 1988 when he described the establishment of “schools of choice,” or “charter schools” as a viable answer to the question of how to improve and reform the public school system at the time.

It is important to understand that although charter schools do not have to adhere to many of the restrictions required of traditional public schools, they are nevertheless considered public schools for the following reasons:

•    Charter schools do not charge tuition, which differentiates them in a significant way from private schools; they are completely open to all students who wish to attend.
•    Charter schools are not permitted to discriminate in any way. They are required to be non-sectarian.
•    Funding for charter schools comes from tax dollars based on the number of students in attendance. This is the same source of support which traditional public schools enjoy.
•    Charter schools are held accountable for the same academic standards which conventional public schools are required by law to adhere to according to federal and individual state guidelines.

Nonetheless charter schools have a degree of independence which traditional public schools find difficult, if not impossible, to pursue. Innovative programing and the ability to meet the needs of their particular student bodies set charter schools apart from traditional public schools. Some ways in which charter schools can meet the individual needs of their students are through:

•    The institution of longer hours if the teachers and/or administrative staff believe that will help improve student outcome.
•    The school’s ability to create curricula which better meet the needs of its particular students.
•    The charter school’s mandate to create a unique academic culture, such as emphasizing arts, science, college prep, or whatever the teachers and/or administration decide should be the school’s focus.
•    The utilization of new, innovative and creative teaching paradigms. Many charter schools have chosen to depart from the traditional method of frontal teaching, exploring alternatives which often better meet the needs of students coming of age in the technological era of the 21st century.

Charter schools are an adjunct to traditional public schools which have dominated the educational landscape in the United States during the past century or more; but it is important to remember that they are not a replacement for them. Learning how charter schools work, what their goals are and how they intend to achieve those goals will help parents make the best possible choice for their children, whether that choice is traditional public schools, or schools within the framework of the charter model.