Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Updated on April 29, 2016

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

smaller school
transportation may be required
smaller class size
more fundraising may be required
family atmosphere
less diverse
different way of learning
less sports and extracurricular activities
qualified teachers
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.


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    • profile image


      6 weeks ago

      Can you tell me more about Charter schools being criticized for not working with disabled students

    • profile image


      21 months ago

      not that helpful

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      this is not helpful at all

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      it was not helpful

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      bryan dose not like charter school

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      I enjoyed your post for the most part however I think you should have left out the part about some charters being in poor African-American areas but yet somehow lack homeless, disabled, and ESL students you could have just left it at some charters are less diverse because I'm not sure if you are aware but your comments were highly offensive to African American people and communities.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      My daughter has been accepted to a charter high school in the bay area, CA. She is also registered at our district public school as well. She is coming from a very small private middle school. Im not sure which one would be better for her. Do you have any insight on this you could share with me?

    • Missy Mac profile image

      Missy Mac 

      7 years ago from Illinois

      When I first started teaching, the face of the charter school has changed. In Chicago, failing public schools are replaced with charter schools. Some charter schools have increased the graduation rate and student entering college. However, a few parents complain about poor performance. I agree that a charter and public schools performance depends on the team efforts (administrators, community, and teachers). Parents need to do research before sending a child to a school. Unfortunately, some parents may not have an effective alternative.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Hi, PS. I agree that the process to allow and authorize charters is the key factor in avoiding problems and scams. If only we could find an accountability system, for all public schools, that is not student test-based. That is a whole other can of worms!!

    • Political Season profile image

      Political Season 

      8 years ago from Indianapolis

      Accountability is a key component of a successful charter school system. A major component of the argument for charters is that the measures of their success are aligned with student performance. Schools that don't demonstrate the ability to teach are not permitted to remain open. Charter school disasters tend to occur where this accountability is not hardwired into the system. For example, Ohio permits charters, but anecdotal information indicates they have worked poorly because the oversight mechanisms for who gets a charter and how they are overseen once open is very weak. In contrast, you have Indiana, where in Indianapolis, you have a very strong accountability system for charters that manages carefully who is permitted to open a charter and which scrutinizes their operations as well. Charters that don't perform are closed. This accountability piece is absolutely essential.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, cclitgirl. Charters are on the rise. Just got back from an educational summit today where former Gov. Jeb Bush shared Florida's charter schools successes with South Carolina. When the charters work, they can be great things for our students.

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      8 years ago from Western NC

      Given that I teach in a public school, I'm sort of enamored with the idea of charter school. Thanks for sharing this information - it's valuable for those who don't know that much about charter schools.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, Teresa. Charter schools are popping up all over the place in the US. While many prove their merits, there really have been some disaster cases. A lot of that has to do with accountability, or lack of it in certain areas. My state has a limit on how many charters we can have, and I think that is in part to protect the traditional public school. Public charters and public traditional schools should work together, not compete as private schools do. Public funds for the public good......

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Charter schools are not an option here in Ontario. Schools are now public ally funded or they are private. I expect private schools must go through a similar application process but all but a few are out of most people's financial capacity. Happy to hear you have found success in your daughter's school. There is little more important than a quality education. Grat hub, I enjoyed reading it very much.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thank you, clevercat. I like the tables for a quick reference, sort of a re-cap. There are some really unique charters out there, good and bad. Parents just need to do their research before applying.

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Very interesting! The table puts things into perspective and this was an excellent read. Thanks! Voted interesting and up.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, Rebecca. As public schools, charters must accept all children, but statistically, they do not always do that. My personal experience has been that many discourage students with disabilities from applying, or counsel them out of the school. It is actually illegal to discriminate this way. And then, there are also families that choose not to send their disabled students to certain charters, because they fear they will not fit in or that their needs will not be met. There are charter schools that actually cater to disabled students, though.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      8 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Very interesting! This really cleared up the characteristics of Charter Schools for me. I love the Montessori method. I'll bet your daughter will get a great foundation for her education.I didn't know charter schools didn't accept the disabled. ):

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Hi, nifwlseirff. I think the online learning would be great for the area you mentioned. It works well here for kids who live out in the country, kids who need one-on-one instruction, kids who compete athletically, the list goes on!

      The Montessori really drew me in. You can really see the spark of learning in these kids. They love it. My daughter cries if she has to miss school due to illness or if it is a teacher workday. Learning is fun in this environment.

    • profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 

      8 years ago from Germany

      Charter schools (and the Montessori system) sound fascinating. I've often toyed with the dream of opening and running my own school for long-distance education (online), for those who live in the outback.

      I hope that the politics won't affect the charter ed system too severely.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, cardelean. The way I see it, there are good charters and bad charters. The good ones have dedicated educators and good programs. The bad ones are either in it for profit or were started by people that really don't know what they are doing. The worst part is that now politicians and non-educator policy-makers are claiming that charter schools and school choice are the solution to our educational problems. So, they want to focus on shuffling kids around, while the same problems remain - poverty, class size, etc. It is a very tangled web.

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Hi, justateacher. I like that charters can offer something new that can be used by all schools if proven effective. It takes a while to get there, though, to show the results. Maybe a charter opportunity will head your way. Some around here were started by parents.

    • cardelean profile image


      8 years ago from Michigan

      I think that a lot depends on the location of the charter school. I have worked in both the traditional public school setting as well as the charter school environment. Around here they are called "academies." In my experience, it gives parents of minorities and low income families a false sense of 'eliteness.' I have had children come to me in the public school setting in third grade from charter schools not knowing how to read or add.

      I think that in general there are good and bad teachers in every school and that it is important that parents are active in their child's education and advocates for their children. Perhaps in other areas charter schools are run the way that they are intended but that has not been my experience. Thanks for the thought provoking hub!

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      8 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      I love the idea of charter schools - right now we do not have any in our district. I have often thought about doing a charter school on my own, but don't have the finances to do it...

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Sarah Johnson 

      8 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thanks, teaches12345. I agree. There are many high quality charters, and they often have a positive influence on traditional schools. My daughter's Montessori school has been so successful that 3 Montessori programs are now planned in our regular school district. The collaboration is good, and that is the way it should be. (as opposed to competitiveness)

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      8 years ago

      Great information on the charter school programs. I have discovered the for-profit schools to have a higher concern for the revenue than the quality of the school. There are many charter schools here that are high quality and provide a quality alternative in education. Thanks for sharing.


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