What Parents Should Know About Charter Schools

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If you’re a parent, you might want to explore alternatives to traditional public schools. One option is a charter school. Charter schools are competitive in enrollment, and they have to work to keep their current students and also get new ones through marketing strategies and other tactics. This can actually, in some cases, create a better education experience compared to a non-competitive public school. 

Parents Should Know About Charter Schools

Charter schools aren’t for every family, though, and along with the pros, they do come with some cons. 

The Basics of a Charter School

A charter school is one that operates as a school of choice. A charter school will make a commitment to meet certain objectives in the provided education in exchange for a charter allowing them to operate a school. These schools are exempt from state and local regulations that public schools have to adhere to in some ways, particularly when it comes to operations and management. 

At the same time, there are regulations these schools do have to follow, like a public school. For example, they can’t be affiliated with a religious institution or charge tuition. 

These schools are independently operated despite being technically public, so there’s the opportunity to create classrooms that meet student needs. 

Every charter school operates under a contract with the authorizer, which is usually a government agency, nonprofit, or university. This helps keep them accountable to whatever standards are outlined by their charter. 

Some charter schools will focus on STEM, others on college prep, and some will have other areas of focus. 

Most are located within cities, but also there are charter schools in both suburban and rural areas. 

As far as the curriculum, there are limitless options for charter schools. 

The concept was created more than 25 years ago in Minnesota and was meant to limit some of the bureaucracy surrounding public schools so that educators would have more freedom to innovate in how they work with students. 

There are around three million students who now go to charter schools and more than 7,000 schools. 

The charter these schools are bound to will outline the mission of the particular school, its academic goals, requirements for accountability, and fiscal guidelines. 

If the charter school isn’t meeting the terms of the contract, the authorizer can shut it down. 

A charter school doesn’t get students from an assigned area—parents choose to send their children there. If there’s more demand for enrollment than a school has available in terms of space, then students might be chosen through a lottery. 

Public or Private?

We’ve touched on this briefly above, but parents often wonder if charter schools are public or private. 

It’s a somewhat complex topic. 

First, it depends on how you view a public school. For example, is it defined by the public-funded element, the elected school board, or the open admissions? Based on those standards, a charter school wouldn’t have an elected school board but would meet the other two criteria. 

With that being said, not every school district is run by a school board. 

It also becomes even more of a gray area because there are schools like magnet schools, where there are admissions policies that let them choose their students, yet they are part of the traditional district public school system. 

What all this means is that you might get different answers depending on the district, the state law, and who you ask. 

What Are the Pros and Cons?

As is true of any education option, there are pros and cons of charter schools. 

These schools give parents more choices, and they can be innovative as far as what’s offered in the classroom. Schools are forced to compete to get students and retain them, so according to school choice advocates, this improves the quality of education provided. 

If you want your child’s education to focus on a particular area, like STEM, this can be another upside of a charter school. 

However, the independence of charter schools can be so appealing to some parents can also be part of the downsides. For example, there is an issue like financial mismanagement, and even if a school is facing serious financial or academic problems, the authorizer might not close it down because of parental pushback. 

Opponents of charter schools say they’re pulling resources from school districts that already don’t have enough funding, and they’re cherry-picking students. There are also opponents who argue these schools could create more racial segregation than public schools. 

Limitations of charter schools include transportation. Many don’t have buses, so students and their families have to figure out how to get to school. Charter schools may not have a lot of extracurriculars either, especially sports teams. 


People who favor charter schools feel one of the big perks of this model is that they’re open to students outside of the immediate neighborhood, unlike public schools. You can’t buy a home that’s going to give you automatic access to a certain charter school. Parents usually fill out an application, and as was mentioned, if there’s more demand than availability, there’s a lottery to determine who enrolls. 

Final Thoughts

If your question is whether or not charter schools are better than public schools, there isn’t one answer. A charter school is a compelling educational opportunity for some families, but it’s not something that will work for everyone. 

The quality of these schools and the educational outcomes are highly variable, so parents interested in a charter school have to do their own research. 

With that being said, parents choose these schools because they have teachers who are invested in learning and innovation, and the focus might match the needs of their child. For some families, the decision is as simple as their child struggling in public school, and they want to try something new. 

Some parents might also like the ability to take a more active role in the education of their child with a charter school compared to public schools. In public schools, parents don’t have much say over things like curriculum and the general learning experience, which is dictated at the federal and state level and also by the elected school board. 

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