What is a charter school?

A charter school is a nonsectarian public school of choice that operates with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The “charter” establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school’s contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor-usually a state or local school board-to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them.

What’s the difference between charter schools and other public schools?

Charter schools are public schools of choice, meaning teachers and students choose them. They operate with freedom from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. They generally offer teachers and students more authority to make decisions than most traditional public schools. Instead of being accountable for compliance with rules and regulations, they are accountable for academic results and for upholding their charter.
When drafting charter school laws, most states explain their intent to:

  • increase opportunities for learning and access to quality education for all students
  • create choice for parents and students within the public school system
  • provide a system of accountability for results in public education
  • encourage innovative teaching practices
  • create new professional opportunities for teachers
  • encourage community and parent involvement in public education
  • leverage improved public education broadly

Who authorizes charter schools?

This varies from state to state, depending on the state’s charter law. In California, there are three types of authorizers: the governing board of the school districts, county boards of education, or the state board.