Charter School vs. Public School

Are Charter Schools better than Public Schools? What even is a Charter School? Did you know that a charter school can close without notice, leaving families out in the cold?

Here are is a chart outlining some of the differences between Charter Schools vs. Public Schools.

Public Schools vs. Charter SchoolsPublic School Charter School
Must have certified teachers.YesNo
Accountable to Taxpayers and Right to Know LawsYesNo
Governed by local, elected school boardYesNo
Can spend millions of dollars on TV AdvertisingNoYes
Can choose which children they permit to enrollNoYes
Has to share budget and expenses with taxpayersYesNo
Is bound to IDEA and Section 504YesOn paper, yes
Can be run by a for-profit company, with profits going to CEOsNoYes
Required to provide Gifted YesNo

Charter Schools are a relatively new phenomenon. While Public Schools have been around a long time, Charter Schools have only been in existence for about two decades. For most of us, anyway. I live in Pennsylvania and we didn’t “get” charter schools until 1997. That is, the legislation for them was passed in 1997.

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What are the differences of a charter school vs. a public school?

I find now, 20+ years later, that many parents still don’t really understand them and know what they are. Knowing what the purpose of a charter school is, how they are funded, and what your child stands to gain or lose may help you make a decision.

As of 2018, 44 states and DC have charter schools.

First, I want to clarify something. I live in Pennsylvania. Charter Schools are very state specific. What I tell you may not necessarily the be case for all charter schools, particularly when I talk about dollars and spending.

Public Charter School vs Public School

On paper, Charter Schools are to be considered Public Schools. They are funded primarily with tax dollars. Charter Schools are bound to IDEA and Charters are required to provide Special Education.

The marketing firms hired by Charters use words like “tuition free, academy, leadership” and other such terms that may have led you to believe that they are private. There is no tuition. Just like at a public school.

They are not private schools, though they are somewhat permitted to run like private schools, but using taxpayer dollars. Private schools do not have to provide special education. Charter schools are supposed to provide special education, but often parents are told “you have to return to your home district.”

The differences between a traditional public school and charter schools, listed out for parents to easily understand.

There is much confusion or lack of clarity among parents. They often confuse charter schools and think they are private schools. They are not. But this confusion leads to many parents not fully understanding their parental rights and IEPs.

What is a Charter School?

A charter school is something that was created via a statute. In PA, it was done by amending Chapter 14.

How it happens is basically this: A group of people (do not have to be experienced educators, and often are not) decides that they want to create a school separate and independent from the local district.

They organize and create a “charter.” This charter gets presented to the local school board and said Local School Board has to approve. Mostly.

In PA, we have something called the Charter Appeal Board (CAB). If a local district does not approve a charter, this group of people can appeal to the CAB.

As an example, in Pittsburgh, many local school boards denied charters only to have the CAB overturn those decisions. Yet, these charters will be funded with taxpayer dollars from those school districts.

In other words, school districts are not able to decide if a charter opens within your district boundaries or not. And, as in the cases in Pittsburgh, some has listed nothing as far as their plan for Special Education. Just left it blank. And they were still approved by the CAB.

This is important for you to know if your child has an IEP. The charter school may very well not have a plan in place for your child’s special education. You can read more below.

Charter Schools can shut down with no notice.

This is important. And it happens more often than one would hope. But, because charter schools are run independently of a school district, and because they are accountable to no one as far as how and what they spend, they are not always well-run.

Yes, Public Schools are not always well run either. However, their financial records are public and they are accountable to the local taxpayers and voters at election time.

Poor charter school management has resulted in numerous charter schools across the nation being closed down without notice, and leaving children stranded.

If your child struggles with adjustments and transitions to new environments, make sure that environment is going to be there for the long haul.

How do I enroll in a Charter School?

That information can probably be found on their website. Many charter schools have long wait lists because many parents are willing to sacrifice other performance measures for safety.

This is particularly common in poorer sections of large cities. Inequities in school funding have largely contributed to this problem.

As a result, your desired charter school may have a lottery system to enter. It has been my experience that children with IEPs have very bad luck when it comes to being chosen in these lotteries.

What is different, day to day, in a Charter School?

If you are enrolled in a cyber charter, obviously, a lot is going to change.

You may receive ‘free’ internet service and a ‘free’ laptop for your child, which is a huge draw for many low-income families. (I put ‘free’ in air quotes because these are items paid for with taxpayer dollars, so while there is no charge to parents, they are not free.)

Your child will now be home with you instead of attending a school building.

I have seen some cyber charters that have unusual class schedules, particularly for older students. It may not be the traditional 8:00-3:00 that you are used to. Some have long breaks during the day, and your child may not attend class for 6 hours like they would at brick and mortar.

Typically the time is less and your child is expected to do more via independent study and with you. This is a significant consideration if your child has special needs or attention issues, lacks focus, or really struggles with time management and other executive functioning disorders.

Otherwise, day to day, not much will change. A brick and mortar charter school may require uniforms or have other little things that set them apart.

But otherwise, your child is going to get on a bus and get dropped off at a classroom and go to school. Just like at public schools.

Do you have time to volunteer at the Charter School?

Some charter schools put in clauses that a parent has to give X number of volunteer hours each week or month. Public schools cannot require this.

Not only does it give the charter an advantage as far as volunteer hours at the school, it also excludes families where both parents work. Most working families cannot make this commitment, thus only wealthier families with stay-at-home-parents can do this.

Are Charter Schools better than Public Schools?

Not necessarily. If you’ve never been in a charter school, think about why you have the opinion that you do? Where did you hear it? Chances are, you may be being influenced by advertising, as is common in our society.

There is something called the School Performance Profile (SPP). It basically is the new data–it replaces what we used to collect from No Child Left Behind.

It is pretty much the go-to as far as comparing one school to another.

YouTube video

According to SPP, there is not one Cyber Charter School in PA that has received a passing score (70) during the entire time that SPP has been in existence.

By most data points, Charter Schools are not measuring up to their Public School counterparts. I will link articles and studies at the end of this post. However, pretty much in all of the standard measures (graduation rate, proficiency, etc.) the results are less than desirable.

A now-infamous study out of Stanford discovered some really alarming results. On average, for students at Cyber Charters, their performance was so poor that it is almost the same as if they don’t attend school at all!

Do Charter Schools have to provide Special Education?

The short answer is yes. These are publicly funded schools, bound to IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and all the other laws. However, in day to day practice, this doesn’t always happen. (I acknowledge that traditional public schools suck in this area too, hence pretty much the reasoning behind the whole existence of my blog and podcast)

The difference, in my opinion, is the systems that charters have in place to skirt around the laws and systems.

If you are in a charter and your child’s special needs are not being met, or, if you have been told that your child cannot attend a particular charter due to their disabilities, please read this post: Do Charter Schools have to provide Special Education? I go into much more detail there and don’t want to repeat myself.

And, at least in PA, charter schools do not have to provide Gifted Programming, or GIEPs, even though PA Education Code Chapter 16 requires public schools to do so.

This varies by the Charter School. Some charters list a specific focus, such as STEM or the Performing Arts. As a parent, read the website and the mission of the school.

But Charter School class size is better, right?

Not necessarily. Ask before you enroll. In some cases, classes in charter schools have more students than a public school. This is because states often set maximum numbers for public schools, and charters may not be bound to that.

And since they are allowed to make a profit (which then goes to CEO and shareholders) they can eliminate teacher positions to do this. In Cyber Charters, this is common.

How are Charter Schools vs. Public Schools funded?

I can only tell you how it works in PA. In my state, the district attaches a “per pupil” spending amount per child. I believe our state average is around $11k-$14k per child, for a non-disabled student.

So if your district attaches a figure of $11,000 to the students in your district, that is what they pay the charter school, per child enrolled in that charter school.

Up until around 2011, schools were reimbursed from the state of PA for this expense. Governor Corbett ended that, so school districts now have to eat that cost.

Additionally, they get a larger amount for a disabled child. In some school districts the reimbursement rate for a disabled child (very high needs) may be as high as $40,000.

However, if a child moves to a Cyber Charter, it only costs about $5k to educate a child via Cyber Charter. Cyber Charters don’t have to pay for buildings, heat, transportation, cafeteria, nurses, librarians and so on.

But they are not required to tell us how they spend the excess money, nor are you permitted to know. (exempt from Right to Know, below) Public schools only get the amount per child that they need, no excess. They also are responsible for reporting how it is spent.

Public Schools never really “lose” a cost due to students enrolling in a charter. Depending on the year, about 6-8% of PA children are enrolled in a charter school. But, if a school loses 6% of their students, they cannot get rid of 6% of their costs. The reason for this is that it’s spread out over the district.

Some classrooms or school buses might be down a kid or two, but it’s not enough to eliminate a teacher’s salary or a bus route.

The Public School District still bears the same amount of costs, for the most part.

YouTube video

Many Charter Schools are exempt from Right to Know.

Public schools that use public dollars are held to the laws called “Right to Know” or “Freedom of Information Act.” What this means is that you, as a taxpayer, can request specific information about your school (and other public agencies).

Why this matters: Well, if you want to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, you may need information. You may want to know how many children of color have been arrested by your SRO, as compared to white children. Or males vs. females. Perhaps you want to know suspension rates, the average teacher salary, whatever.

As a taxpayer, you have a right to this information. However, at least in PA, charters have used a work-around for this. Charters themselves are not permitted to be for-profit. But what happens is, they may form the charter school as a non-profit, and contract out to a for-profit company for the day-to-day operations.

The private, for-profit company is exempt from Right to Know laws. So, pretty much the only thing you can ever ask is how much the Charter School pays to that management company. The management company does not have to tell you how they spend the money.

Are Charter School teachers the same as Public School?

No, not in every state. Some require that the charter teachers be certified, others do not. Ask before you enroll, as there can be vast differences depending on your state.

A infographic explaining the differences between charter schools and traditional public schools, courtesy of the Missouri School Boards Association.

Public School vs. Charter School TV Commercials

Some Charter Schools spend as much as $8 million per year on advertising. Again, the management company does not have to tell you how they spend your tax dollars.

To my knowledge, Public Schools do not do any TV or other advertising. I do not think that the average taxpayer would be happy if their local school board chose to spend their money this way, but apparently it doesn’t bother people when it comes to charter schools.

It’s a personal decision.

At the end of the day, as parents, we have to do what is best for our kids. Just make sure that you are making an informed decision before enrolling your child. There are a lot of beliefs and myths out there about charter schools (and privates too!) as far as class size, performance and so on, that just aren’t true.

Please know what rights you are giving up by choosing a charter school.

If you choose an alternative to your public school for whatever reason, safety, a particular interest like theater….you just want to make sure that your choice has a proven record of results.

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