Last week’s post discussed the state of our current public education and attempted to address the question, “Why is Change Necessary?”. The underlying assumption of this series going forward will be that America’s public education system is in a state of crisis and requires change. A quick Google Search for “public education alternatives” shows several alternatives to traditional public education, Private Schooling, Homeschooling, School Vouchers and Charter Schools being the most prevalent. This post will not attempt to resolve why any of these is superior to the others, but will attempt to clearly define exactly what is meant by Charter School.
I believe that a Charter School can be most clearly defined as a School of Choice. Failing all other options, enrollment in the local public school is compulsory for all American children under the age of 18, while enrollment in a Charter School is not mandatory. The same may be said of any of the other stated alternatives. Parents may choose to homeschool their children, choose to pay for a Private School or choose to receive a Voucher so that their child can attend another Public School outside of their local area. What distinguishes Charter Schools from each of these, and what makes the school more appropriately a School of Choice, is that the intent of a Charter School is to provide a local alternative to a student’s local public school. In theory, students attending a Charter School should be doing so in their local area.
In terms of enrollment procedures, Charter Schools very closely resemble public schools. Charter Schools can not charge tuition or have a religious affiliation, nor can they selectively admit students. If more students wish to enroll in a local charter than there are available seats, the school must hold a lottery to randomly admit students. If a Charter School has an available seat, they must admit a student regardless of the student’s prior educational performance. The intent of Charter Schools is not to create Magnet Schools with specialized or advanced curricula.
The purpose of Charter Schools is not merely to create choices for the sake of choice. Strictly speaking, a Charter incorporates an institution and defines its rights and responsibilities. In terms of schooling, a charter defines what the school will be, what will be its stated goals and who it will be accountable to. When states began passing laws allowing public schools to be chartered they did so with the understanding that these schools would be in more direct, local control of their day-to-day and year-to-year operations, but the trade off would be that these schools would have to show superior results when compared to the local public school they would be competing with. In this sense, a school charter is two things: 1) a granting of rights to the charter’s managing body and 2) a performance contract between this managing body and the sponsoring institution. To put it succinctly, a charter school must outperform the public school to remain in existence. To quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Charter Schools are similar to Public School Vouchers in the sense that Charter Schools receive public funding. As part of the school’s charter, a Charter School is sponsored by some institution. This may be the State Board of Education or a local School District. Charter Schools receive funding through this sponsoring institution based upon the Average Daily Attendance of their student body. Beyond receiving these funds, however, Charter Schools are legally and financially autonomous. They do not need to submit budgets for approval to their sponsoring body. They may use the funds they receive in any way provided they are meeting the goals spelled out in their Charter. In this sense, a Charter School is similar to a non-profit that has written a grant for funds, then must use the funds to complete the goals spelled out in the grant.
Currently, 40 states and the District of Columbia have Charter Schools in operation.