Amid a movement to provide families with more choice when it comes to public education, Minnesota legislators approved the United States' first charter school law in 1991, sparking a groundswell across the country as more states followed suit.

Three decades later, there are more than 7,400 charter schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And nearly all states, except Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont, allow them.

Charter schools were designed to "break the mold" and be "different by design," says Claire Smrekar, Ph.D., an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and an expert on school choice. "To move away and get out of some of the rather onerous bureaucratic constraints, regulations, rules, and allow schools to design and develop and innovate in ways that improve student outcomes and student learning."

But are they accomplishing those ambitious goals? Here's what parents should know about charter schools.

How Are Charter Schools Funded?

Charter schools are public schools and can't charge tuition, says Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Actual funding depends on each state's charter school laws, but they can receive a mix of money from federal, state, and local sources, just like conventional public schools.

Charter schools typically, however, don't receive as much. The Center for Education Reform found that charter schools receive about $6,585 per student, compared to $10,771 at conventional schools. And while some states offer bonds or grants for building acquisition, says Dr. Smrekar, many charter schools receive no public support to pay for a building. "The No. 1 reason charter schools fail is financial," she says. "They really have to be innovative."

To keep their charter and the funding that goes with it, charter schools must meet state assessments, including state testing requirements.

Who Operates Charter Schools? How Is Their Operation Different From Traditional Public Schools?

Charter schools are typically run by a group that's separate from a public school district. They might be made up of local educators and teachers or parents, nonprofits, or, in some cases, for-profit companies. They typically aren't bound by the same requirements as traditional public schools.

For example, they might not offer typical school resources such as a library or computer lab. They may not have to provide transportation or a free or reduced lunch, which can be a barrier for some children who can't attend without bus service and need access to a free lunch.

Teachers might not need to hold a teacher's license. And, while federal law requires charter schools to serve students with learning needs, Potter says, many have an "uneven track record." One study found that charter schools were more likely to ignore inquiries about admission from parents with children with significant special needs.

An image of school supplies and notebooks on a desk.

How Are Students Selected for a Charter School?

Charter schools usually are required to hold a lottery if they have more applicants than seats, Potter says. "It typically has to be a random lottery," she says. Students with a sibling or parent at the school might get preference. In some states, charter schools use weighted lotteries to reserve seats for students who, for example, might qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Are Charter Schools Meeting Expectations?

"When one studies charter schools across the country, the most consistent finding is a set of inconsistent results," Smrekar says. "Some charter schools outperform their traditional public school peers when they're matched with the same type of kids and same grade configuration. Some do exactly the same as their peer institutions, and some do poorly when compared to their peers."

One U.S. Department of Education study of charter middle schools found that those that serve more low-income or low-achieving students were successful at raising math scores while charter schools serving more advantaged students had negative effects on math outcomes.

Another study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that 37 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were worse than traditional public schools, 46 percent demonstrated no significant difference, and 17 percent were "significantly better."

Are Charter Schools Diverse?

Studies show that charter school students can be far more segregated than their public school peers. One Associated Press analysis found that 17 percent of charter schools have student populations that are almost entirely nonwhite, compared to 4 percent of traditional schools. Another study from the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that charter schools are more "racially isolated" than their conventional school counterparts. And, in North Carolina, researchers at Duke University found that charter schools were increasingly serving the interests of white students.

Potter noted these trends as part of a Century Foundation review of the nation's charter schools that found just 2 percent of charter schools were "diverse-by-design," with an institutional commitment to diversity.

"Both in terms of equity and academic performance, the record is really mixed, which is maybe what you would expect from a model that's all about flexibility," Potter says.

What Should Parents Do When Considering a Charter School?

Parents interested in learning more about charter schools near them need to do their research and ask questions, recommends Dr. Smrekar. Find out what the school's policy is related to diversity. If your child has learning needs, find out what services will be available. Interview parents of current and former students to learn more about their experience. And ask how many teachers are licensed. "We know that teacher quality is a key factor in student learning and engagement," she says.

At the same time, determine how friendly your state's laws are to charter schools. The friendlier states may have more funding and support for charter schools, says Dr. Smrekar. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools compares charter school laws by state.

Great charter schools exist, says Dr. Smrekar. But before registering your child, "make sure that all the boxes are checked."


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