Charter Schools vs. Public Schools
Choosing a School
My daughter attends a public Montessori charter school, and my son attends a traditional neighborhood public school. The differences between the schools are significant, and each has advantages and disadvantages. We also were enrolled in a public online charter school for two years and left in disappointment.
As an educational advocate, I have received input from other families who have attended both types of public schools. Just as traditional public schools are not all the same, neither are charters, though there are some basic differences that may help you decide which best suits your child's educational needs.
Charter School Definition
A charter school is a free public school of choice that operates under a contract agreeing to meet certain goals and follow set guidelines, in exchange for exemptions from some government rules and regulations.
What Are Charter Schools?
Charter schools are public schools that agree to produce certain results in exchange for educational freedom. Any individual or company can start a charter, but usually must comply with a stringent application process that would include a mission description, goals and plans for implementation. Charters are often started by parents or other community members who see a need for a different method or approach to public education.
It is usually a county school district or state charter school district that authorizes a charter to operate. There is an actual contract, and the charters are expected to show results, such as academic progress. Charters are led by their own elected governing board, often comprised of parents and community leaders. The charter school is accountable to the district that authorizes it and will periodically seek renewal of its contract. Since charter schools are public, they are still required to participate in state testing, and district testing if they belong to a county school district.
Pros and Cons of Charter Schools
transportation may be required
smaller class size
more fundraising may be required
different way of learning
less sports and extracurricular activities
not as stable since on contract
less discipline problems
criticized for not working with disabled students
not one-size-fits-all education
often by lottery to get in
more autonomous, can try new things
for-profit charters are controversial
*general overview, not all charters are equal
Advantages of Charter Schools
The best thing about charter schools is usually tied to the very reason the school was created. Most charters are started as a way to do school differently, to reach a certain type of student. For example, my daughter's school uses the Montessori method. Other schools may focus on the arts, science and math, or online learning. These schools give students another choice of how to learn. This is an important advantage since there are so many different learning styles and interests.
Charter school communities are typically close-knit, since all applicants choose to attend for a common reason. Charters are often smaller schools as well, lending to a closer community where every teacher knows your child's name. Parental involvement is often encouraged and sometimes even required by charters, which adds to the sense of family. The small size and parental involvement often equates to less discipline problems overall.
Charters are more autonomous than traditional public schools, so they are flexible to meet the needs of the classroom and are free to do what works, as opposed to the more one-size-fits-all approach. Since the teachers do have more autonomy, the charters often draw high-quality certified teachers. At my daughter's charter school, each teacher must be state-certified and Montessori certified.
Charter School Scandal
Disadvantages of Charter Schools
Though some charter schools have an advantage of being housed in an existing school facility, most start-up charters must find and finance their own location. This means the school is more dependent on families and the community for donations and fundraising. My daughter's charter school started with 44 students in a small rented trailer, but nine years later, has 250 students in a beautiful new permanent building. We do have a lot of fundraising, though.
The smaller charter schools often do not have much to offer in sports or extracurricular activities, compared to the larger traditional public schools. You will need to look to community teams and activities for a wider selection. Also, attending a charter school usually means the family must provide transportation. There may be other requirements for attendance as well, such as school uniform and mandatory parent volunteer hours. I am required to volunteer 40 hours per year at my daughter's school, but plenty of opportunity has been provided to make it doable.
Lack of diversity is a charter school disadvantage that bothers me most. When a school does not provide transportation and requires mandatory volunteer hours, those requirements often exclude lower income families. Some charters discourage disabled students from applying, claiming that they do not have the resources to provide for the child. Other charters are located in inner city poor areas and serve mostly African-American students, yet somehow have low populations of homeless, disabled, and English second language (ESL) students. Some charters have been accused of skimming off the top - or taking only the highest-performing students in an area.
Applying for a Charter School
Just as with any other type of school, if you are interested in a charter school, be sure to schedule a visit so you can observe a classroom. Ask to speak with other parents who have children there. Check the history of the school to see how long they have been operating and what their school report card says. If your child has a disability, ask how they will provide the necessary services. Look into transportation and any other school requirements.
Many charter schools must select their applicants by lottery due to their inability to meet the demand. This is also considered a disadvantage of charters. Not everyone gets in. If you want to apply to a charter, be sure to find out when the application deadline falls and get all the necessary paperwork in. There are always more spots available in the school's lowest grade, so your child will have more chance in getting a Kindergarten spot over a higher grade. Once you get one child in the charter, siblings usually get priority in future lotteries.