First a note: The information provided in this FAQ reflects California law. For information specific to your state, please consult the charter school legislation in your state. States without charter legislation are: Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.
1. What is a charter school?
A charter school is a public school governed by an independent Board of Directors, serving students in grades kindergarten through twelve. Parents, teachers, or community members may petition a school district’s governing board to open a charter school. The law also allows, in specific situations, county boards of education and the state boards of education to authorize charter schools. Charter petitions are typically granted five-year terms and can then seek renewal if threshold criteria are met by the last year of the term.
2. What is a charter petition?
A charter petition or application is the document submitted for approval to the authorizing entity. It outlines an educational program and operating procedures and specifies goals that the school will be held accountable for meeting at the end of its charter term. Once approved, the petition becomes the contract between the school (its Board of Directors) and the authorizer, typically the school district.
3. How are charter schools funded?
Charter schools receive local, state and federal tax dollars based on student enrollment. Many also receive significant amounts of philanthropic support and private donations.
3. Which laws apply to charter schools?
The charter school system is premised on the exchange of autonomy for accountability. Charter schools are awarded more freedom to pursue their academic goals, but are held accountable at the end of a charter term for meeting or making significant progress towards these goals. Charter schools are exempt from many of the statutes and regulations applying to school districts. Among the statutes with which they must comply are regulations around hiring credentialed teachers and providing a prescribed minimum of instructional minutes.
4. Who can enroll in a charter school?
Students enroll in charter schools on a voluntary basis. Charter law requires that charter schools admit all students unless applications exceed spaces, in which case schools must conduct a random, public lottery. Some schools have admissions preferences, described in their petitions, for siblings, students residing in the district, students who would otherwise attend underperforming schools, etc… Many schools have no admission preferences. All charter schools are required to attempt to enroll a student population that reflects the demographic of the district in which the school is located.
5. Where can I find a list of charter schools?
Most State Department of Education websites have pages with interactive maps showing the locations of charter schools, as well as databases that provide a list of charter schools in the state.
6. What’s the controversy surrounding charter schools?
Some people believe that because charter schools are run by independent, unelected Boards of Directors, they are an attempt to privatize education. Further, for every student that attends a charter school, the amount of per-pupil funding that accompanies that student goes to the charter school, not to the school district the child would otherwise attend. In some cases, school districts have suffered financially when large amounts of students choose charter schools. This typically happens in districts where the district schools are low performing and unsatisfied parents want different educational choices for their children. Additionally, some charter authorizers do not implement sound authorizing practices and underperforming charter schools continue to operate despite poor performance. Lastly, some charter schools have reputations for “creaming” students-choosing those who are most likely to succeed and not enrolling students with disabilities. Allegations like these should be taken very seriously and investigated by the charter school’s authorizer.
7. Why would I choose a charter school?
Charter schools often provide specialized programs; in many states, the legislative intent of charter law states that charter schools should offer unique and innovative programs. Some focus on the arts, technology, project-based learning, Montessori, Waldorf, and/or learning a language.
8. Where can I find more information?
Here are some general links:
About Paige Abramson Hirsch
Paige Abramson Hirsch is a teacher turned lawyer turned educational administrator who currently works as a consultant supporting school districts and charter schools with program analysis and compliance. Paige also sits on the Board of the organization Helping After Neonatal Death of the Peninsula. She lives in San Carlos, California with her husband, dog, and two young children.