What exactly are Charter Schools? The strict definition is rather straightforward. State-legislated Charter Schools are legally independent, innovative, outcome-based, public schools. Common characteristics include:
Independent Charter Schools require state legislation to authorize their existence. The legislation outlines general specifications and requirements for establishing a Charter School in a state, and regulates the number of Charter Schools permitted statewide. The process may be used to create a new school or to empower an existing school.
Teachers or organizers follow state guidelines when they submit their plans for a Charter School to a local board of education or other sponsor. The sponsor grants or denies a "charter" to operate. These agreements may or may not require the final approval of the state board of education.
In some states, once these schools receive their charters they organize as a discrete legal entity - often but not always a nonprofit corporation - and operate almost as an autonomous school district. Some advocates say that this aspect of Charter Schools is a key to differentiating a Charter School from an existing district's alternative school.
Charter Schools are public schools. They are mandated to teach all students, not just gifted or well-financed students. They may not charge tuition. Admission cannot be limited by any intellectual or athletic characteristic. They are bound by all civil rights provisions. And when demand for admission exceeds the number of slots, students are chosen randomly by lot. They may not have a religious affiliation.
Charter Schools are not magnet schools. Students don't have to show special skills or pass tests for admission as is the case in some magnets. However, Charter Schools may target certain enduring learning problems, developmental needs, or educational possibilities. They have specific organizing themes and educational philosophies that guide their work. So, like magnet schools, students may be attracted by the educational idea and vision that guides the learning experience offered by a Charter School.
The original charter, which is negotiated and signed between a Charter School's founding teachers and supporters and the sponsor, sets forth detailed conditions and expectations for an outcome-based school.
Outcome-based means that students must demonstrate what they have learned and know before they move forward in their diverse studies. The goal is to prove active student competence and knowledge in diverse subjects rather than merely record attendance and effort at learning.
From the legislative point of view, innovation is a key component of the Charter School strategy. In Minnesota, for example, the legislative intent is that charters be signed only for innovative school plans or for schools that more effectively reach out to educate students who have been underserved in the past. Thus, Charter Schools are intended to be labs of educational experimentation in these areas aimed at developing new teaching and learning strategies and approaches that can be utilized in other traditional public schools.
In exchange for their innovative and carefully outlined outcome-based plans and community support, Charter Schools receive waivers from state laws and from many state and local administrative rules that can hamper innovation, such as rules mandating the amount of time that a class must spend on a particular subject or how the subject is taught. Since Charter Schools are treated as independent entities, they are not required to report on a daily basis to the local school board that grants them the charter. Charter Schools do not receive waivers from safety, health, dismissal, or civil rights regulations, nor do they escape state testing and report card mechanisms that can keep track of their real progress. However, charters set their own conditions for teacher work rules and salaries.
The basic idea is for students to bring the average funds per pupil with them from their previous district for Charter School to use. Thus, when students move from traditional public schools to charter public schools, money follows. The old school districts lose those dollars to the Charter Schools. To retain that money, legislative advocates say, the traditional public schools will have to improve their educational programs so that they are more attractive to students and their families.
Conversely, when students who have dropped out or have gone off to private schools come back into a Charter School, as in the case of City Academy, their old district is unaffected. Then the Charter School brings additional dollars into the local education arena. The 1993 Minnesota legislation prohibits raising funds for start-up costs through grants or contributions.
Charter Schools are performance-oriented. Renewable charters usually are granted by the local school board for a period of three to five years, depending upon state legislation. Charter Schools must produce student improvement and performance or perish.
Posted on March 6, 1995