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Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

My daughter attends a public Montessori charter school, and my son attends a traditional neighborhood public school. We have learned a lot.

Charter Schools vs. Public Schools: How Do They Compare?

Charter Schools vs. Public Schools: How Do They Compare?

Choosing a School

My kids were enrolled in a public online charter school for two disappointing years. Now, 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.

As an educational advocate, I have received input from many 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.

What Is a Charter School?

  • Charter schools are public schools that agree to produce certain results in exchange for certain educational freedoms.
  • A charter school is a free public school that operates under a contract, agreeing to meet certain goals and follow set guidelines in exchange for exemptions from some government rules and regulations.
  • It is usually a county school district or state charter school district that authorizes a charter to operate. There is an actual contract, and charters are expected to show results (such as academic progress).
  • Charters are led by their own elected governing boards, often comprised of parents and community leaders.
  • The charter school is also 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 and district testing if they belong to a county school district.

Pros and Cons of Charter Schools

This is meant to give a general overview, but not all charters are equal.


fewer students overall

transportation may be required

smaller class size

more fundraising may be required

family atmosphere

less diverse student body

may offer different, nontraditional ways of learning

fewer sports and extracurricular activities offered

qualified teachers

not as stable since on contract

fewer discipline problems

criticized for not working with disabled students

not one-size-fits-all education

students accepted by lottery

more autonomous learning opportunities

for-profit charters are controversial

students and teachers can try new things

Which type of school is the best for your child: a traditional public school or a charter?

Which type of school is the best for your child: a traditional public school or a charter?

What Are the Advantages of Attending a Charter?

Academic Choice. The best thing about a charter school is usually reflective of the reason the school was created. Most charters are started as a way to do school differently in order 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 nontraditional public schools give students other choices for how to learn. This is an important advantage since there are so many different learning styles and interests.

Close-Knit Community. The communities of these schools are typically close-knit since all applicants likely choose to attend for similar reasons. Charters often have smaller student bodies as well, which can lead to a closer community where every teacher knows your child's name.

Parental Involvement. Parental involvement is often encouraged and sometimes even required, which adds to the sense of family.

Fewer Disciplinary Problems. The small size and parental involvement often equate to fewer discipline problems overall.

Autononimity and Flexibility. 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.

Good Teachers. Since the teachers have more autonomy, charters often draw high-quality certified teachers. At my daughter's school, each teacher must be state-certified and Montessori-certified.

What Are the Disadvantages?

Dependence on Fundraising. Though some charter schools have the 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, it has 250 students in a beautiful new permanent building. We do have a lot of fundraising, though.

Fewer Extracurricular Activities. Smaller charter schools often do not have much to offer in terms of 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.

No School Bus. Also, attending a charter school usually means the family must provide transportation.

Additional Requirements. 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 opportunities have been provided to make it doable.

Lack of Diversity. Lack of diversity is the 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 those children. Other charters are located in poorer inner-city areas and serve mostly African-American students, yet somehow have low populations of homeless, disabled, and English as a second language (ESL) students. Some charters have been accused of skimming off the top or taking only the highest-performing students in an area.

Who Can Start a Charter School?

Any individual or company can start a charter, but they must comply with a stringent application process that includes creating a mission statement, setting explicit goals, and defining 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.

How to Choose a Charter 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 its school report card says.
  • if your child has a disability, ask how they will provide the necessary services.
  • look into transportation needs, uniforms, and any other school requirements.

How to Get Into a Charter School

Many charter schools select their applicants by lottery due to high 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 a better chance of getting a kindergarten spot than a higher grade. Once you get one child into the charter, siblings usually get priority in future lotteries.


Maddog on May 26, 2020:

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

daevionnabenson on September 23, 2018:

not that helpful

riley on February 15, 2018:

this is not helpful at all

sadedaqueen on January 30, 2018:

it was not helpful

bryan on January 24, 2018:

bryan dose not like charter school

Gia on January 18, 2018:

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.

Michelle on March 08, 2017:

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 from Illinois on September 23, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on June 25, 2012:

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 from Indianapolis on June 25, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 27, 2012:

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.

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on April 27, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 26, 2012:

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 from Ontario, Canada on April 25, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 25, 2012:

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.

Rachel Vega from Massachusetts on April 25, 2012:

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

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 25, 2012:

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.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on April 25, 2012:

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. ):

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 25, 2012:

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.

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on April 24, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 23, 2012:

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.

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 23, 2012:

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 from Michigan on April 23, 2012:

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!

LaDena Campbell from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz... on April 23, 2012:

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...

Sarah Johnson (author) from Charleston, South Carolina on April 23, 2012:

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)

Dianna Mendez on April 23, 2012:

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.