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Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Did you know that charter schools are actually public schools? Traditional public schools and charter schools have some major differences, but both are more bound to state laws and regulations than private schools. So what exactly are the differences between the two?

In a Nutshell

Charter schools are public schools that are independent of school districts through contracts with state or local boards.

The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for greater accountability. As public schools, charter schools are open to all children, do not require entrance exams, cannot charge tuition, and must participate in state testing and federal accountability programs. The schools draw up their own “charter” which is a set of rules and performance standards that they are held accountable to.

Related: What is a Charter School?

Traditional public schools are tied to school districts and set their curriculums based on state education standards.

Traditional public schools must adhere to education standards set by the state education board and are not exempt from any state, federal, or local laws regarding education. They are governed by the school district, which is run by a democratically-elected school board.

Comparing Charter Schools and Traditional Public Schools

Category Charter Schools Traditional Public Schools
Category Funding
Charter Schools Funded on a per-pupil basis with government funds and can sometimes receive private funding, but typically receive less funding overall
Traditional Public Schools Funded partially through state budget funding but primarily through local taxes
Category Government Regulation
Charter Schools Independently run but must meet standards outlined in their charter in order to secure state funding
Traditional Public Schools Must adhere to all state school board regulations and laws, governed by school districts which implement state law. Local school board (elected) runs the district
Category Teacher Certification
Charter Schools Teachers don't necessarily have to be certified, but this differs from state to state
Traditional Public Schools Teachers must be certified by the state education board
Category Curriculum Flexibility
Charter Schools Curriculum is also flexible, but school is held accountable to a performance contract
Traditional Public Schools Curriculum is decided by the state education board, and implemented by the school district
Category Application Process
Charter Schools May have an application, but students do not have to take an entrance exam
Traditional Public Schools All students within the school district are free to attend the school, and do not have to apply

How they’re the same: Charter schools and traditional public schools are both free,  cannot discriminate against students they admit to their schools, and receive state funding.

How they’re different: Charter schools receive state funding on a fixed, per-pupil basis, while traditional public schools receive more funding more heavily in the form of local taxpayer dollars. Both types of schools directly compete for state funding.

In terms of accountability, state schools adhere directly to standards set by the state board of education, but charter schools are bound to their charter, which is drawn up by a group (could be a for-profit organization, a group of teachers, parents, the local school district, or government entities). Theoretically, a charter school can be shut down if it does not meet the standards outlined in its charter.

Controversy and Criticism of Charter Schools

Since charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon, there are still some bumps in the road in terms of guaranteeing their success rates. Issues with accountability and funding have contributed to high failure rates among charter schools.

About 24% of charter schools close due to mismanagement, which is the 2nd largest reason for closure besides funding issues. Since charter schools and public schools directly compete for public funding, some argue that the existence of charter school undermines the public education system. Additionally, since charter schools can be run by for-profit organizations, some criticise for-profit charter schools as turning education into a business opportunity.

More: Read about charter school performance in What is a Charter School?

Basic Statistics

As of 2016-2017, there were an estimated 6,900 public charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia with approximately 3.1 million students.

of students attend charter schools in the US
increase in charter school enrollment in the last 15 years
states that allow the establishment of charter schools
of all schools in the US are traditional public schools
Source:National Alliance for Public Charters, National Center for Education Statistics

Want to learn more about charter school statistics? With so much misinformation about charter schools in the media, we thought we’d share just the facts: what charter schools are, where they are, who goes to them, and how they’re performing.

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Author: Alex Caffee

Former Marketing and Business Analyst at Niche. Dessert aficionado. Currently living and working in New York City.