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Overview of Charter Schools


Q. What are charter schools?


Charter schools are public schools that any students can go to and their parents don't have to pay. Charter schools, like public schools, are funded with taxpayer dollars, so they are not private schools and there are no tuition payments associated with enrollment in a charter school.


But they are different from public schools because they have increased flexibility in their rules, programming and staff, offering more options and opportunities than the traditional public school usually can. Both the students and the teachers have chosen to be there, and that is different than most public-school settings.


Charter schools got started in Minnesota in 1992, and in 2008, charter school advocates claim there are more than 4,000 charter schools today in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, educating more than 1.3 million students.


The state with the most charter schools is California, in which a quarter of a million students are in charter-school classrooms.


Charter-school advocates claim that even though charter schools make up less than 3% of all schools in the United States, many of them are extraordinarily good, and 12 of the top-rated 100 high schools in the country are charter schools, they say.


The amount of freedom charter schools have depends a lot on the quality of the state law that enables them. For example, in some states, the teachers' unions still have effective control over such matters as the yearly calendar, start and stop times for teachers and other staff, credentials of staff, and other important elements of schooling. Therefore, in some states, charter schools don't have very much freedom to be different, and thus their student achievement is not much better than that of students in the regular public schools.


Examples of how charter schools might differ from regular public schools in how they choose to meet the educational needs of individual children: they might be focused on a particular theme such as language immersion or the arts; decision-making might include parents, which you almost never see with traditional public schools; teachers typically have more freedom and flexibility to develop curriculum and activities; the school start and stop times or the school-year might be structured differently; discipline rules may be different; parental participation rules may be different, and in some charter schools, strict rules about teacher credentials may be somewhat relaxed.


Charter schools still have plenty of accountability systems in place, the same as regular public schools. Through school boards or other authorities, they are accountable to parents, to charter-school authorizers, the state, and lenders.


According to the University of Minnesota's Joe Nathan, a charter-school expert, charter school enrollment is growing because the schools are small and safe, offer attractive and distinctivce programming, usually have better discipline, and it's common to experience a high level of respect among parents, students and teachers.


EdSource, an independent research organization, recently found charter middle and high schools performed much better than regular public schools on California's 2007 achievement tests. Oakland's charter middle schools scored 210 points higher, on an 800-point scale, than the city's noncharters, according to the Oakland Tribune.


Homework: Here are websites for more information about charter schools: (study shows grade-school charter schools outperform traditional public schools for disadvantaged student populations)



By Susan Darst Williams Choice & Charters 04 2008


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