The truth about charter schools (2023)

Charter school is a loaded term. Prejudices abound and misconceptions reign. Here’s what you need to know when considering a charter school for your child.

Charter schools. Aren’t they private?

No, no! They are really small experimental schools with crazy classes in things like underwater basket weaving.

Nah they’re totally cutting-edge they’re all about implementing the very highest academic standards.

That sounds like a euphemism for teaching to the test!

I heard they’re corrupt — they’re just a way for corporations to make money off the government.

That’s not true! The charter schools I’ve heard about are amazing, but they’re impossible to get into.

Overhearing a conversation about these often misunderstood schools can be like the story of the blind men and the elephant — opinions can vary so widely that they seem to be describing different realities.

The truth about charter schools

So, what’s the truth? They are not one thing: they range from the smallest classroom — your child alone at your home computer — to multi-campus, nationwide organizations with dozens of schools. They include very strict schooling models with young scholars in uniforms sitting in rows to progressive places where barefoot kids learn academic subjects primarily through art projects, and everything in between.

What do these schools all have in common? They are independent entities that have received a charter, which is a set of self-written rules (and promises) about how the school will be structured and run. Essentially, they are able to organize a school that’s outside the control of the local school district but still funded by local, state, and federal tax money. This allows charter schools not to follow the same regulations as district schools. Sometimes this results in a very high-performing school, sometimes not. This approach to education tends to produce a more diverse range of schools than might traditionally be found within school districts.

One thing’s for certain: the charter movement is spreading like wildfire across America. New Orleans became the first major American city to transform most of its public schools into charter-run operations in 2005. Today, more than two million students attend about 5,700 charter schools nationwide, each with its own rules and education model. In the 2011-2012 school year alone, 518 new schools opened, boosting charter school enrollment by 10 percent in a single school year, according to the Center for Education Reform’s June 2012 policy update.

Charter schools are like traditional public schools in important ways:

  • They take the same state-mandated standardized tests.
  • They don’t charge tuition.
  • They can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment.
  • They’re accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter.

Charter schools differ from traditional public schools in many ways:

  • How a staff is organized may be unfamiliar. For instance, there may be an executive director in charge of leadership, fundraising, and bureaucratic compliance above the principal, who deals with the day-to-day functioning of the school.
  • They can be run and operated by a nonprofit Charter Management Organization (CMO), such as Knowledge is Power Project (KIPP), which operates more than 120 elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation.
  • They can be run by private, for-profit entities that also provide the school’s curriculum. For instance, the company K12 operates virtual charter schools across the nation for more than 65,000 kids.
  • They can have a founding educational philosophy — such asWaldorforMontessori— which determines the curriculum and teacher training.
  • They can hire teachers who are not part of a union or even credentialed, which is something to ask your local charter school about. Some charter schools hire teachers with credentials; in the state of California, all charter schools must hire credentialed teachers by law. And some CMOs hire unionized teachers — Green Dot Public Schools hires only unionized teachers for its four middle schools and 14 high schools.

Charter school groups often describe their efforts as a movement, a reaction to poorly run public schools. Many were founded by groups of committed parents or community leaders who wanted a larger role in shaping the quality of their schools. Parental involvement is often more than encouraged, it’s expected. Many schools begin each year by asking parents to sign an agreement to support the school and their child’s learning, including a pledge to contribute a certain number of volunteer hours.

The myths about charter schools

If you are wondering why are charter schools bad or good, consider these misconceptions about how they’re run and what they offer students.

MYTH #1: They are private.

Charter schools are not private schools — all are public. It’s confusing because some schools are operated by for-profit companies or groups called education management organizations (EMOs). Because these for-profits make money, some people think they’re private but they’re not; they don’t charge tuition.

MYTH #2: They are experimental schools with crazy classes.

True, some are, but this is the exception, hardly the rule. These schools are guided by their own charter, which means they have the flexibility to develop nontraditional academic programs or curricula that’s innovative or fits special needs. Some charters offer education with an emphasis on the arts, STEM, foreign languages, or music. Others have an old-fashioned back-to-basics approach, while others have highly experimental approaches. There’s no way to know until you visit.

MYTH #3: They have the highest academic standards.

Reports are mixed when it comes to student performance. On average, studies have found that student performance at charter schools is quite similar to performance at comparable public schools — if not a little worse. A 2003 national study showed charter school students were no better than public schools at educating kids. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2010-2011 show that overall, fourth and eighth grade students in charter schools did not do as well in math and reading as their counterparts in traditional public schools.

But this “on average” comparison can be deceptive. These schools tend to fall on two ends of the spectrum — high-performing or low-performing — rather than somewhere in the middle. The study shows positive effects are strongest at charter schools serving primarily low-income students: there are more excellent charter schools serving low-income students than there are high-performing traditional public schools serving low-income students.

A 2009 Stanford University studyfound that charter school performance varies from state to state. Students in Arkansas, Colorado (Denver), Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana, and Missouri, for example, made larger gains on standardized tests than would have occurred at traditional public schools. Meanwhile, charter school performance in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, and Texas lagged behind the average student growth at traditional public schools.

The moral for parents? Generalizations about charter schools — negative or positive — won’t help you figure out which school is right for your child.

MYTH #4: They are a hotbed of corruption — it’s just a way for corporations to make money off the government.

Aside from some headline-grabbing charges alleging fraud in Philly, a big embezzlement bust in Ohio, and other similar scandals across the country, charter schools by definition aren’t doing anything illegal.

Charter schools run on public funds — and it’s money that would otherwise be used in traditional public schools, which is a key argument against charter schools. The oft-heard argument that “charters are stealing from public schools” is political, not evidence of corruption. As these schools mature, many face the process of renewing their charters. Some schools have closed when it’s time for review because of financial problems, poor test scores, or low enrollment. About 15 percent of charters have closed since 1992. One common problem is that on average, they receive less money to operate their facilities than public schools. The result? Facilities become rundown faster, and the schools have to close.

MYTH #5: They are impossible to get into.

Although by law they can’t discriminate by disability, gender, race, or religion, popular charter schools can be difficult to get into — but it’s certainly not impossible. To enroll your child in a charter school, you may need to submit a separate application for each charter school in addition to the district application — and sometimes they have different due dates. If there are more applicants than open spots, they may use a lottery system to fill the vacancies: some of the lotteries are public events where winning numbers or names are drawn and called out, while others are computer-run with notifications sent by mail.

The good news is that many don’t limit enrollment by where you live, so parents can look outside their neighborhood to find the best charter school. The bad news? Charters can be so popular that you may find yet another lottery and waiting list when you get there. Across the country, there are about 610,000 students waiting on lists to get in.

The bottom line: look into the charters in your area as yet another school option. It’s impossible to know if there’s a charter school that’s right for your child until you go inside and see the school for yourself.


What is the controversial issue with charter schools? ›

The most common arguments about charter schools are that: Charters steal kids and money from traditional public ISDs. Charters are selective and operate like private schools. Public charter schools don't enroll students from historically underserved families.

Why are charter schools so strict? ›

With state pressure for high academic performance, charter schools have co-evolved strict behavioral standards and expectations to prevent distractions from learning. Unfortunately, these policies can at times discriminate against children with certain disabilities.

Why do people think charter schools are better? ›

Charter schools have unique freedom and flexibility not found in public school districts, and their freedom from the red tape of public education often allows them to dedicate increased resources and energy on supporting students in excelling academic standards.

What are three arguments in favor of charter schools? ›

Pros of Charter Schools
  • Innovative Teaching Methods. ...
  • Embraces Individual Learning Styles. ...
  • Tight-knit Community Feel. ...
  • Charter schools are more accountable. ...
  • Increased parent participation. ...
  • Charter schools give students and parents options. ...
  • High admission rates to top universities. ...
  • Higher test scores.

How do Democrats feel about charter schools? ›

The evolving politics of charter schools

Support for charter schools among Democratic voters, specifically white Democratic voters, has dropped. From 2016 to 2018, white Democrats' support for charter schools decreased from 43% to 27%.

Why do charter schools have a bad reputation? ›

Charter schools overall have been found to increase school segregation. Charter schools overall serve far fewer children with disabilities and English-language learners than public schools.

What are the disadvantages of charter schools? ›

Pros and Cons of Charter Schools
fewer students overalltransportation may be required
smaller class sizemore fundraising may be required
family atmosphereless diverse student body
may offer different, nontraditional ways of learningfewer sports and extracurricular activities offered
5 more rows
Sep 7, 2023

What is the no excuses model? ›

No-excuses charter schools are designed to close the achievement gap between poor minority students and privileged students through rigid behavioral codes.

What is the no excuses model of discipline? ›

The term itself means these schools are going to make no excuses for student failure, irrespective of student background. They're not going to say, “These students came to us three grades behind, so we can't get them to college.”

Why do parents send their children to charter schools? ›

One of the greatest advantages of your child attending a charter school is the ability to receive more specialized learning. Charter schools oftentimes have much smaller class sizes than their traditional public school counterparts, allowing students to become more involved and engaged in their education.

Why do people want charter schools? ›

Charter schools provide an affordable alternative to private education. Charter schools get their funds from public sources, meaning there is no tuition to send your child to a charter school, though some do charge fees for various activities and programs.

Do charter schools always outperform public schools? ›


Measured in time, those test scores suggest charter school students outperform public school students by 16 added days of learning in reading and 6 more days in math. "That is a huge move that translates to more than two extra weeks of school," says Raymond.

What do critics of charter schools argue? ›

Critics of charter schools argue that they lead to segregation, with quality education exclusively for wealthier students and unqualified teachers in out-dated facilities for students in low-income demographics.

What do the advocates of charter schools believe? ›

Charter school advocates believe that creating more choices will empower parents and provide quality education opportunities for those students who need it the most.

Are charter schools are beneficial to the quality of education in the United States? ›

A few studies have found that charter schools have positive effects on student achievement, and other research has found negative effects, but the vast majority of studies have shown student achievement effects similar to those of traditional public schools.

What are two issues with the charter school movement? ›

This lack of oversight and transparency has paved the way for fraud, corruption and mistreatment of students and staff at an increasing number of charter schools, documented in multiple studies and reports. It has also led to some charters denying equal access to students.

What is charter schools and their enemy? ›

Charter Schools and Their Enemies is a 2020 book by American economist, social theorist and author Thomas Sowell, in which he compares the educational outcomes of school children educated at charter schools with those at conventional public schools.

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Terence Hammes MD

Last Updated: 07/10/2023

Views: 6156

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (49 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Terence Hammes MD

Birthday: 1992-04-11

Address: Suite 408 9446 Mercy Mews, West Roxie, CT 04904

Phone: +50312511349175

Job: Product Consulting Liaison

Hobby: Jogging, Motor sports, Nordic skating, Jigsaw puzzles, Bird watching, Nordic skating, Sculpting

Introduction: My name is Terence Hammes MD, I am a inexpensive, energetic, jolly, faithful, cheerful, proud, rich person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.