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What are Charter Schools?

If you’re a teacher-in training, you’ve probably heard of charter schools. You may have even visited a charter school in the course of your fieldwork. Even before you took an interest in teaching, you probably heard the term “charter school” somewhere—charter schools are in the news a good deal, and are also a topic of a lot of political debate.

So what exactly is a charter school? In this post, we’ll look at what charter schools are, what they do, and why they are sometimes controversial.

 

The basic definition

Charter schools are schools that receive funding from a public school system but operate independently from the surrounding school district. As a general rule, charter schools receive full funding—or close to 100% of their funding—from the host public school system. This means that charters—unlike private and religious schools—do not charge tuition. They’re free, just like public schools.

The degree of independence charter schools have varies a lot from school to school. This is because each charter school has a different contract with its host school district. (This contract is sometimes called a charter—hence the name.) Some charter schools are under fairly close school district control, while others have a lot of latitude to operate as they wish. Nearly every charter school has to meet some basic educational standards set by the district—hiring certified teachers, administering standardized tests, teaching grade-level-appropriate lessons, and so on.

 

The purpose of charter schools

School districts sometimes extend contracts to charter schools that meet specific district needs. Let me give you one example from the school district I live in—the Eau Claire Area School District (ECASD) in Wisconsin. ECASD has a contract with McKinley Charter School, and has specifically hired McKinley (and its board of directors) to teach students who are unable to attend regular public schools for a variety of reasons. McKinley teaches students who’ve been expelled from other schools and also sends instructors to the county jail to teach incarcerated youth. Additionally, McKinley provides instruction to students with severe health problems, sending its teachers to hospitals and homes of hospice-care students as needed.

Not all charter schools serve the specific needs of their school district in this way, however. Other charters are created to address parental demands for alternative education. One popular form of alternative education is Montessori education. Montessori schools follow an alternative teaching philosophy characterized by hands-on-learning, mixed age groups, longer class periods, and other features that are not standard in American public schools. Due to the popularity of Montessori learning, many public school districts have been willing to fully fund Montessori charter schools, providing free-of-charge Montessori classes as an alternative to regular public education.

Other charter schools provide bilingual education or language immersion education. There are Korean-English charter schools, Spanish immersion charter schools, and more. Charters also specialize in many other types of alternative education. A charter school may provide certain kinds of vocational training, focus on music or the arts, follow certain educational philosophies, and so on. The range of education found in charter schools is limited only to the imagination of the charter school sponsors and school district administrators who write up the charter contracts.

 

Why charter schools are controversial

Charter schools inspire a lot of strong opinions. If you Google the term, you’ll find a lot of web pages that speak very highly of charter schools, as well as web pages that slam charter schools as a bad thing. And if you follow politics, you’ll notice that there are many heated debates about this form of publicly funded alternative schooling.

Because charter schools serve so many different purposes, people will inevitably have many different feelings about them. With so much variety in the contracts, schemes for funding and oversight can differ widely as well. This means that some charter schools take up only a moderate share of a school system’s budget and deliver services in a way that everyone agrees on. Others may require far more money per student than a regular public school, and deliver education that not everyone feels is worth the cost.

To make matters more politically complex, charter schools are often associated with “education reform,” a highly politicized concept. The education reform movement itself is politically fractured and people within the movement don’t always agree on the value of charter schools.

 

What this means for you as a future teacher

Without a doubt, many charter schools are great places to work. Many charters offer unique and special alternative education experiences. Other charter schools may have poor oversight or a strained relationship with their school district and community, and may not be the best place to apply for a teaching job. Either way, one thing is certain—charter schools are here to stay, and will likely be a part of your fieldwork, your job hunt, or both. As you search for work, be open to teaching at a charter school. And make an effort to know and understand the different charter schools you may apply to.

 

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