President Obama just plain loves charter schools, calling them models of innovation and a key to lifting public education across the country. Expanding charter schools is a priority of his administration.
For parents, though, education isn’t about a president’s political agenda. The decision to enroll your child in a charter school is huge, especially if it’s a new school with no track record. Even more daunting is the decision to try to start a charter school, something parents have embarked on as a way to create from scratch the education they want for their children.
Charter schools are tricky to explain, but basically, they’re independent public schools. They operate separately from the local and state school board and free from many of the policies and regulations traditional public schools must abide by. Charter schools are held accountable through terms spelled out in a charter, which must be approved by the local board or the state. In short, charter schools are free to be creative in how they teach, but they must get results or risk being shut down.
Advocates say charter schools have the flexibility to better meet the needs of their students and that they can attract the best teachers with the promise of more freedom in the classroom. Charter schools can also set higher standards for parental involvement, discipline, and academics.
The concept originated in the early nineties, and now there are 4,600 charter schools nationwide, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools . About 1.4 million students attend charter schools, and about 365,000 are on waiting lists.
“The growth of charter schools has been a phenomenon,” says William Schulz, Vice President of Communications at the NAPCS.
Still, ten states do not have a charter school law and many local districts don’t have any charter schools. But for those of us who live in states that do have charter schools, these questions may provide some guidance when considering a charter school for your child.
1. What charter schools are available? Your local school district can tell you what charter schools are open to your child based on where you live. Charter schools cannot pick and choose their students based on test scores and other criteria. When a charter school has more applicants than seats, admission is determined by lottery.
2. What’s special about the charter school? By definition, charter schools offer something the neighborhood public school does not. Most have a unique curriculum or theme, such as entrepreneurship or the environment. Some may emphasize foreign languages, offering instruction in Chinese and Arabic. Others focus on traditional values, such as strict discipline and uniforms.
3. Who’s in charge? In many cases, a management company or nonprofit organization runs the charter school. Such schools might be part of a franchise, like the acclaimed Knowledge Is Power program. In other cases, a board made up of parents and community members develops the concept and hires a principal to carry out their vision.
4. What type of student does this charter school serve? Traditional public schools must, by definition, serve the masses. Charter schools often serve niche markets, such as students with an interest in a particular field or subject, or underserved groups such as teenage mothers.
5. What is the school’s track record? Charter schools vary in terms of quality and academic expectations. You should find test scores posted on your state’s department of education Web site that will allow you to make comparisons with other schools. If it’s a new school, find out how high the academic targets are set in the charter.
6. What is the school’s financial health? Even charter schools that succeed academically may struggle financially. In theory, the tax dollars spent to educate a child follow that child to the charter school. But calculations vary state to state and may not include expenses such as facilities or transportation. Parents are often expected to help raise funds to support the school’s mission.
7. When does the school’s charter expire? Charters are approved for a set number of years and can be for as few as three or as many as seven. If the school’s charter is going to expire next year, make sure a renewal is in the works. Find out if any of the terms of the charter are likely to change.
8. How charter-friendly is my state? My local school district? Some educators resist the concept for various reasons, such as a belief that charter schools pull students and money away from neighborhood schools. If you live in an area less friendly toward charter schools, you may need to spend more time in an advocacy role. Your state’s charter school association  can help you determine if you’re in charter-friendly territory.
9. What if I have no charter school in my community? Many successful charter schools were created by parents who wanted a better school option for their kids. It’s an uphill climb—time-consuming and often fraught with frustration—but parents who succeed say it’s rewarding to have such a hand in their child’s education. Check with your state department of education and charter school association to find out how to get started.
10. May I schedule a tour? There is no substitute for visiting a school, walking the hallways, and peeking into classrooms. Because charter schools are, by definition, different from traditional schools, their mission may be hard to explain. By visiting the school, talking to parents, and watching teachers interact with students, you can get a good idea if the school would be a good fit for your child.
Sending your child to a charter school is a leap of faith. Many charter schools have failed over the years, but many more have succeeded. Exploring the possibility of charter schools could lead you to the right school for your child.