Charter School, an elementary or secondary school in the United States supported with public funds but organized and operated privately. Charter schools are established by groups of teachers, parents, or others who wish to create public education alternatives to existing public school systems. Charter schools operate with greater independence from state and local regulations than do public schools. For example, unlike public schools, charter schools determine their own curriculum and daily operating policies.
The first charter school in the United States was established in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1991. Since then the charter school movement has spread rapidly. By 1997, 25 states and the District of Columbia had enacted laws authorizing the creation of charter schools, and nearly 500 charter schools were in operation nationwide. Student enrollment in these schools totalled approximately 80,000.
II HOW CHARTER SCHOOLS OPERATE
In states that allow charter schools, parents, teachers, and other groups who seek to organize a school must submit a proposal to state government officials for approval. In some regions of the country, local government officials also review the proposal. The proposal must offer a curriculum and educational philosophy distinct from those available in the public school system. It also must prove a demonstrated public demand for the intended program. Charter schools must clearly define their educational programs and methods, assessment tools, budget plans, staffing arrangements, and student recruitment strategies to qualify for public education funds. These funds are drawn from the state or local public education budget. Individual states or local school districts determine the allowable number of charter schools and the amount of public funding available for them.
Charters and operating budgets for new schools are approved by state and local officials, such as the state superintendent of instruction or members of the local school board. These officials also monitor the performance of charter schools. They can revoke a school’s charter at any time for violations of the terms or conditions of its charter. Public officials may also revoke a charter if the school’s students or teachers fail to perform satisfactorily. Performance is assessed by a variety of factors, such as student graduation rates or test scores. Like conventional public schools, charter schools cannot charge tuition and must comply with civil rights laws and federal and state health and safety standards.
Although they receive money from public education funds, charter schools may determine spending priorities without intervention from the state or local school districts. Organizers of charter schools nonetheless often consider funding a major concern. Most charter schools receive less public money per pupil than public schools. The United States Department of Education (DOE) provides funds to help finance the start-up of new charter schools. For the fiscal year 1997, the DOE provided $51 million to the states for this purpose.
III THE DEBATE ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS
The rapid growth of charter schools in the United States has sparked controversy. Critics claim that charter schools drain funds from meagre public school budgets because local school districts must often reduce their own budgets to fund the new schools. Some charter schools have faced criticism for using unreliable assessment tools to evaluate school performance. Critics also charge that charter schools often use dilapidated or otherwise inferior buildings because they lack sufficient funds.
Charter school advocates claim that providing competition among schools improves public education. They also cite the burgeoning numbers of charter schools as proof of widespread public support. Advocates claim that increased attendance and graduation rates at a number of charter schools demonstrate that charter schools bring increased educational opportunity to students who have not succeeded within public schools. Parents, students, and teachers have expressed relatively high degrees of satisfaction with charter schools. Most charter schools have waiting lists for admission.