What is a Charter School?


A charter school is a public school that operates as a school of choice. Charter schools commit to obtaining specific educational objectives in return for a charter to operate a school. Charter schools are exempt from significant state or local regulations related to operation and management but otherwise adhere to regulations of public schools — for example, charter schools cannot charge tuition or be affiliated with a religious institution.

In other words, charter schools are publicly accountable — they rely on families choosing to enroll their children, and they must have a written performance contract with the authorized public chartering agency. Charter schools are also autonomous — they have more flexibility in the operations and management of the school than traditional public schools. For further information, refer to a list of key charter terms and definitions (PDF).

As of 2018-2019, there are 7486 charter schoolsSource: NCSRC analysis of CCD data
1988: Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, introduces the concept of charter schools run by teams of teachers and charged with creating innovative solutions to the challenge of underserved students
1991: Minnesota passes the first charter school law
1992: The first charter school opens in St. Paul, MN by a group of teachers interested in supporting older teens and young adults
1994: The Department of Education’s Charter School Program (CSP) was established by Congress to provide funds to State Education Agencies (SEAs) to create and supportcharter schools
2005: Charter schools serve approximately 2% of all students
2016: Charter schools serve approximately 5%   of all students
2019: West Virginia becomes the 45th state, in addition to DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico, to allow charter schools

Life Cycle of a Charter School

Life cycle of a charter school in 6 steps. 1. Design and Planning. 2. Authorizing Period. 3: Preparing to Open. 4. Enrollment and Operations. 5. Achieving and Sustaining Success. 6. Optional: Replication and Expansion

Step 1: Design and Planning

An individual, group of people, or Charter Management Organization (CMO) sees the need for a school that the current system is not fulfilling. The charter applicant must confirm that their state allows charter schools and that this school would be allowed under any state capacity limits. Once confirmed, the potential charter operator writes mission and/or academic statements, establishes their governance, sets a budget and identifies sources of funding, chooses a location and develops their charter application. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have resources for further information and planning: SchoolBuild: From Idea to Construction, and Charter Law Database.

Step 2: The Authorizing Period

During this period, the prospective charter school operator submits charter planning and application materials and, when required, a letter of intent to the charter school authorizer for approval. Authorizers decide who can start a new charter school, set academic and operational expectations and oversee school performance. Examples of authorizers include states, local education agencies (LEAs), colleges and universities, and independent non-profit bodies. The type of organization that can function as an authorizer and number of authorizers vary by state and are determined by state law.

Step 3: Preparing to Open

Once the charter school is approved, the charter school operator may begin the many steps it takes to prepare for opening. These steps are extensive, and can include hiring teachers, administrators and facility managers; identifying or creating curriculum; defining discipline policies; planning for the school’s extra-curricular activities; establishing transportation and many others. The charter school operator must also identify and prepare a facility for academic, recreational and food service operations. This can be a significant amount of work for charter operators as many schools do not exist in traditional school buildings, nor do they receive resources like chairs, tables, desks and books from school districts.

Step 4: Enrollment and Operations

Once the charter has been approved for operation and staff has been hired, the charter can begin enrollment and operations. Because charter schools are schools of choice, students apply to enroll in charter schools. Like traditional public schools, charter schools cannot discriminate against students in enrollment – for example, a charter school cannot require students to pass a certain exam or be from a certain religious or racial background in order to enroll. If more students apply for the charter school than the school’s capacity, students will be entered into an admissions lottery that chooses students using a system of randomization. Once the charter school has enrolled its students, it begins operations.

Step 5: Achieving and Sustaining Success

Now that the charter school has completed the startup steps and begun enrollment and operations, the school can focus on achieving and sustaining academic success. As charter school authorizers review charter schools on a regular basis, often every five years, this step is important for the stability and vitality of the charter school. Charter schools are accountable to families, students, and charter school authorizers to maintain academic, financial, and operational success.

(Optional) Replication and Expansion

Successful and high-quality charter schools may go on to replicate or expand. CSP grants are available for charter operators that are interested in different types of replication or expansion. For example, a CMO may apply for CSP grants in order to expand the grade levels it serves, increase the number of seats available for students, or replicate its model into another school. Not all charter schools intend to replicate or expand; many focus on serving a specific neighborhood or certain needs, and will continue to focus on sustaining the success within a single school.

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