The Rise of Alternative Education: Charter Schools

Our mission here at One Room Education is to inform parents so that they have all the necessary information they need to give their children the best education possible. 

Our job is not only to point out some of the pitfalls of the American public education system, but also to offer alternatives. While homeschooling is definitely encouraged here, we also realize this might not fit every family’s lifestyle.

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Today we are going to focus on a different option: the charter school.

We will focus on the most burning questions that parents might be asking. There are pros and cons to charter schools of course, but in terms of giving parents more independence, flexibility and control over their child’s education, it is one of the best options. 

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First, we should answer the all-important question: 

What are charter schools and why do they even exist?

The problems with our public education system aren’t recent. In 1991, Minnesota passed legislation to create the first charter school in America. It was an answer to the rigidity, red tape and stagnation that surrounded public schools at that time (and that still exists today). 

The National Charter School Resource Center defines the charter school as follows:


“A charter school is a public school that operates as a school of choice. Charter schools commit to obtaining specific educational objectives in return for a charter to operate a school. Charter schools are exempt from significant state or local regulations related to operation and management but otherwise adhere to regulations of public schools.”


The “charter” stated above includes the school’s academic goals, mission statement and accountability requirements. These serve as its operational guidelines rather than state and local rules and regulations. 

This gives the charter school far more independence than it would otherwise have if it were merely a public school. Teachers are free to be more innovative and parents can have even more public school options.

However, the most important keyword above is “accountability”. The charter school is held accountable to an authorizer–which could be a university, state agency or school district–that has the power to shut down the charter school if they do not adhere to the requirements stated in the charter.  

This arrangement is known as a “charter bargain” where the school trades independence for accountability. 

Are they public or private schools? 

A common question asked by parents considering sending their child to a charter school is, “Are charter schools public schools?” This is understandable because the only reason they might even consider a charter school is because they want to avoid the public education system altogether.

While I would love to give you a straightforward yes or no on this, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Yes, charter schools are considered public education facilities because they receive public funds to provide a tuition-free education to all students; but also no, because they operate according to their own set of standards and goals, outside of state mandated requirements of other public educational institutions.

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Technically, charter schools are treated very similarly to public schools since they can receive state and local funding based on the number of enrolled students. They can also collect federal government funding for special education services as well as expansion. Other methods of funding include raising money through donations and philanthropy.

This usually leads to the question, “Are charter schools for-profit or not?” The answer is rather confusing. While the schools themselves are non-profit, some states do allow for-profit companies to manage charter schools. These education management organizations, EMOs, would be responsible for such things as developing curricula, hiring teachers and setting some of the policies listed in the school’s charter.

Charter schools also have a tuition-free, open admissions policy. Any child accepted to the school doesn’t have to pay a dime, just like in public schools. They are also required to take the same assessment tests that their traditional school counterparts take. Charter schools have become so popular that some have been known for holding public lotteries if demand exceeds the number of available seats.

The main difference between charter and traditional public schools is autonomy. Charters are free to pursue alternative curriculum approaches and can focus on specific fields of study, such as art and technology. 

What about virtual charter schools?

Charter schools can also go virtual, dismissing the need for a brick-and–mortar building altogether.

Virtual charter schools are yet another option for parents looking for something different. These virtual schools offer online classes, standardized testing, and a planned curriculum. They also provide some on-site extracurricular activities so the children have a chance to get out of the house. 

While homeschooling is for parents who want complete control over their child’s learning, virtual charter schools are for the parents who don’t want to send their children to a physical school, but who also might not have the time, ability, or funds to consider pure homeschooling. 

Despite these differences, virtual charter schools remain an option for parents who would like more control over their children’s education.

 Now let’s look at the pros and cons of traditional charter schools.

Pros and Cons of Charter Schools

There are several potential benefits and drawbacks to charter schools, and there is not enough time to cover all of them in a single article. I would like to point out the ones that I personally consider the most important.

Pros

Specialization. Because charter schools are free to be more flexible and innovative, they are capable of specializing in certain areas. There are charter schools for STEM, creative arts, college prep and foreign languages. This also leads to a better quality of education since the teacher is free to focus on what they specialize in, rather than just teaching what they are told to teach like their public school counterparts.

woman reading a book to the children

Better Curriculum. Innovation is the name of the game with charter schools and is a big part of why they exist in the first place. Because educators are free to experiment and try new things, this leads to a better classroom experience for all. Rather than forcing information down the students’ throats (whether it is useful or not), charter teachers can keep what works and get rid of things that don’t.

Accountability. Yet another main reason for the existence of charter schools. The school has to follow the rules outlined in the charter. If they don’t, they can be shut down. Simple as that. Accountability is severely lacking in public schools. Educators can teach mediocre class after mediocre class and aren’t held responsible for it. That is done away with in charter schools.

Cons

Complicated admissions process. Charter schools are in high demand these days, and as stated before, many charters have held lotteries for potential students when there are more applications than there is room available. Please make sure to read about the admissions process of any school you choose because there might be a lottery that takes place to obtain enrollment.

Potential misuse of funding. This is especially the case with virtual charter schools. In January 2022 the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, a virtual charter, was found to have overcharged the state of Ohio by $60 million in one year for “ghost” students. This refers to students who merely log in to the platform but don’t actually attend the online classes, which is a totally different issue of its own.

How to choose the best charter school for your child

There is no real way for me to tell you how to choose the best school for your child. What is important for my child might be completely different from what you prefer. Does your child have special needs? Do you value a school that focuses on religion? Does your child have a gift for art, math or science?

Both the answers and questions will be different for each child, parent and family, But I think there are two important questions that all parents need to answer before choosing a school.

The first is, “What are the school’s goals and do they align with the goals I have  for my child?” If they don’t, you might want to reconsider sending your child there.

The second, more important question is, “Is the school meeting its goals?” Please make sure to look at the accomplishments of any charter school you decide on. As stated before, a charter must abide by the guidelines outlined in their charter agreement or else they could be shut down. Going over the list of accomplishments is also the best way to determine if the school can actually help your child.

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