Public Charter Schools

By Jim Mhoon
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Focus on the Family
Pros and cons of charter schools

Charter schools (also known as community schools) are government-financed schools operated by nongovernmental entities. Typically, they share two distinguishing traits: (1) The entity operating the school is independent of any school district and is not a governmental agency, and (2) they do not serve students within specific attendance boundaries. State charters serve students throughout the state, and district charters serve students throughout the district and allow interdistrict transfers as they are available.

Charter schools are similar to magnet schools in that they seek to appeal to families on the basis of: (1) a unique educational approach, such as classical education or expedition learning; (2) the special needs of families in the community, such as Edison schools, which target low achieving segments of a community or virtual home-based schools such as K-12; and (3) a particular discipline, such as art, humanities, science, or technology.

Charter schools can be small, independent operations or part of a large education company. Some of them are for-profit institutions and some are run by the government.

Like other public schools, charters cannot discriminate based upon race or religion and they must comply with laws restricting religious instruction. However, they seek to distinguish themselves from the regular district model by providing a specialized approach to education. They are also managed separately from the local district with their own board of directors.

Charter schools are similar to magnet programs in that they are opt-in programs populated by students who have chosen to attend the school. Generally, this is a positive indicator of parental involvement. It is vital for parents to understand the charter of a given school and its approach to education. For example, some charter schools seek to serve students who have not managed well in traditional environments. For a high-achieving student, such an environment may not be suitable. Others seek to provide an advanced curriculum or focus on experiential learning or appeal to certain learning styles.

The effectiveness of charter schools is a subject of debate, with some claiming that charters have not demonstrated adequate improvement over more traditional models. Proponents suggest that many charters purposefully appeal to the neediest students.

Meanwhile, some programs are setting new standards in education and out-performing all but the very best, advanced curriculum models. As with other public programs, the true test is whether the particular program in consideration meets the standards you have. You should expect good academics, good parent involvement and direction, qualified teachers, and adequate facilities.

Pros of Charter Schools

  • Some of the more innovative education systems have arisen from the ranks of charter schools. In some cases, charter programs have academically outdistanced their public school peers considerably.
  • Charter programs are 100 percent opt-in, which could mean greater parental involvement.
  • Charter programs are funded based upon student enrollment and must find a particular niche in the community in order to compete with established programs. Consequently, they tend to have greater accountability to parents.
  • Charter schools are usually run by independent boards elected by the families of that school, and they often require that board members have students of their own in the school. This maximizes accountability.

Cons of Charter Schools

  • There are lots of ideas out there on building a better school. Some of them are good, some of them are not. New programs come with a set of risks that are often difficult to discern.
  • Charter schools normally do not receive 100 percent of the funding per student that traditional public schools receive. Financial viability is often a major issue with charter operations.
  • Charter schools are often political footballs; they are not approved in all states, and some states impose arbitrary rules on charters, making operation and long-term viability questionable. For example, California changed charter laws a few years ago in the middle of the school year and removed funds from some schools, leaving families scrambling to enroll in a new program.
  • Charters are not always constrained by state laws requiring teaching credentials. This can result in teachers who are not well qualified for the job. On the other hand, many are exceptional teachers who have not run the gauntlet of state credentialing. The problem is that there are no objective criteria for assessing a teacher’s suitability for the classroom.
  • Not all charters use standardized testing to measure academic progress. This makes it difficult to measure their effectiveness against other alternatives. On the other hand, many charters cater to the neediest students and so start at a disadvantage with respect to standardized tests. It’s important to know the difference between a school hesitant to be measure and a school that is being measured from a disadvantaged position.

Adapted from Handbook on Choosing Your Child’s Education, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2007, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.


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About the Author

Jim Mhoon

Jim Mhoon is a National Certified Counselor and member of ACA. He draws on extensive experience as a non-profit executive with organizations such as Focus on the Family, Medical Teams International, Partners International and CRISTA Ministries and from personal life experience including growing up in a single parent home, raising a special needs child and being married for 31+ years.