Charter schools are hardly an obscure corner of the public school sector—there are 7,000 charter schools across 43 states, serving a total of 3.2 million students. And those schools often find themselves at the center of fierce debates over issues including policy, funding, and oversight.
Yet many in the public—even some policymakers and educators—can find themselves confused about what a charter school really is, or what forms charters can take on.
The simplest way to put it: A charter school is a public school that is independently operated. Beyond the basics, however, there can be much to differentiate one charter school from another, ranging from management to authorizers to the money that keeps it running. Additionally, charters can be affected by local laws that may place regulations on how a charter is allowed to run.
Here’s a quick look at some of those issues, ways that charter schools can differ, and potential strengths and weaknesses that come with various approaches.
Who Oversees Charters?
All charter schools must be authorized by institutions that decide who can start a new school and what is expected of that school. These institutions also oversee a school’s performance. Overall, there are six main types of authorizers: independent chartering boards, state education agencies, higher education institutions, non-educational government entities, such as a mayor’s office, nonprofit organizations, and school districts, (otherwise known as “local education agencies,” or LEAs).
In practice, the majority of charter schools are authorized by local districts, although the percentage has steadily decreased. According to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in 2013 school districts authorized 56 percent of charters. By 2017, this percentage had dropped to 48 percent, the most recent numbers available.
Who can authorize a charter school, and whether there is a statewide authorizing body, also varies based on state laws. According to the NACSA, school districts are authorizers in 32 states, and may act as authorizers in special cases in three states: Alabama, Kentucky, and Maine.
How LEAs act as authorizers also depends on state laws. According to the Education Commission of the States, in California, LEAs are the primary authorizers, but can relinquish their authorizing authority to an independent chartering board. In Minnesota, however, LEAs are one of many authorities.
“Co-located” charters share a facility or exist in close proximity to a traditional public school. These schools may be located in large cities, where real estate is expensive, and schools have to battle it out for available space, or in rural towns where it may not be financially viable to build a new facility.
Co-located facilities often are the source of tension between the charter and the traditional public school sharing a space. For example, one or the other school may have to reserve areas of the facility, such as the gym or field, ahead of time for events and activities. Advocates of charter and traditional schools sometimes say one type of school pulls students and resources away from the other, starving its counterpart.
However, a study by Sarah Cordes, an assistant professor of education at the Temple University College of Education, indicates that co-locating may offer benefits to both sides. Her study of 900,000 3rd to 5th graders in New York City found that when a school shares a building with a charter, levels of engagement and safety increase. Co-located schools reported small increases in attendance for both types of schools, and a 20 to 40 percent decrease in the number of students retained for not performing at grade level, according to the study.
With funding from the district and governance by the school board, so-called “affiliated” charter schools—a term mainly used by the Los Angeles Unified School District—offer limited autonomy and flexibility. Unlike most independent charter schools, which are given as much self-governance as permitted by law, affiliated charters are largely indistinguishable from traditional public schools.
While the term may be associated with Los Angeles, which has about 50 district-affiliated charter schools, some other states have charters that essentially act as affiliated charters due to strict laws governing schools. Maryland charters, for example, must adhere to the district’s collective-bargaining agreement, hire certified teachers (charters may apply for exemptions from both), and participate in the state retirement system. There is no explicit language under Maryland’s charter law that provides them with fiscal and legal autonomy with an independent board.
In effect, affiliated charters must adhere to district guidelines and curriculum, use district facilities, and hire district teachers. Additionally, they are bound by union bargaining agreements, and, in the case of LAUSD, teachers may go on strike hand in hand with their noncharter counterparts.
Still, affiliated charters typically have more flexibility than traditional public schools in that they have some site-based freedom over non-state funding and educational programming, including texts, methods, and testing.
Privately Operated Charters
The majority of charter schools are privately operated, usually by nonprofit and, in some states, for-profit education management organizations.
Some organizations own and operate charter schools across the country. For example, KIPP, a network of charter schools operated by a nonprofit of the same name, has 224 college-preparatory charter schools across the country.
KIPP is an example of a charter management organization (or CMO), which either manages certain aspects of a charter school for a board or an entire network of schools. Although KIPP is run by one nonprofit entity, different boards manage each school.
Education management organizations (or EMOs) are typically run by for-profit organizations, which manage all aspects of the school and students’ education.
Unlike affiliated charters, privately operated charters have the freedom to stray from certain district and union rules. For example, privately operated charters can implement longer school days or years, enforce students to wear uniforms, or incorporate different topics in the curriculum.
This freedom, however, can raise concerns about transparency and accountability. Critics of privately operated charters have also expressed concerns over how such schools use tax dollars.
Many of these factors are dependent on the authorizers who oversee such charters.
“If you have a good authorizer and a good accountability system, … then [charter schools] are accountable to the public for their performance.” said Nathan Barrett, the senior director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Coverage of how parents work with educators, community leaders and policymakers to make informed decisions about their children’s education is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as What Form Can Charter Schools Take? A Brief Field Guide