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What Is a Charter School?

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

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.

How are charter schools different from traditional public schools?

Charter schools:

  • Exempt from certain state or local rules and regulations
  • Governed by a group or organization, instead of by the state education board
  • Accountable to a charter — a performance contract — and are obligated to meet standards in the charter in order to receive funding and maintain autonomy
  • Funded on a per-pupil basis with public funds

Traditional public schools:

  • Must meet education standards set by the state education board, following all state and local laws and regulations
  • Each public school district has a publicly-elected school board that’s held accountable for school performance.
  • Rely on a combination of local, state, and federal government funding, with a great portion of that coming in the form of local taxes (funding varies across school districts)

Why choose a charter school?

Charter schools have more flexibility than public schools in designing their own curricula. This type of flexibility can take several forms:

  • Schools can adjust the curricula and class materials to fit students’ needs.
  • Some schools create a theme or an overall focus for their curricula, such as STEM education, performing arts, college prep, or language immersion.
  • Some schools’ concept of the physical classroom can vary, such as allowing kids to access online classes.

Recommended: How We Became a Charter School Family

How do students enroll in a charter school?

Students must apply and be accepted, sometimes through a lottery system if the school cannot accommodate all the applicants.

How is a charter school established?

A group of people—which could include parents, community leaders, teachers, school districts, or municipalities—submit a charter. This charter is then reviewed by authorizers. Depending on state laws, these authorizers can be: a state board of education, education agencies, higher ed institutions, or local school districts. Authorizers are held accountable for the performance of the charter school, and the charter must be renewed every few years.

How are charter schools funded?

Charter schools receive their funds by getting state-approved charters. If a charter is approved, funding is allotted on a per-pupil basis. They are primarily publicly funded, but can still receive private funding.

Do teachers need to be certified at charter schools?

Not necessarily. Most states require certification for all teachers, but certain states will define certification differently. For example, Massachusetts requires their teachers to achieve Highly Qualified Teachers status.

Charter School Performance

Charter school performance varies widely from city to city and region to region. Based on their Niche Grade, we compared the performance of different types of schools in New York City to get a sample of charter school performance.

New York City Niche Grade Distribution by School Type

new york city charter schools

Type of School % Type of School in City Limits
Type of School Charter Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 8.9%
Type of School District Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 90.2%
Type of School Magnet Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 0.9%

More than 35% of charter schools in New York City have a C Niche Grade, while 24% have grades in the A range.

In a city like Washington, D.C, which has the highest percentage of charter school students in America (42% of public school students), charter school performance is slightly better:

Washington, D.C. Niche Grade Distribution by School Type

washington d.c. charter schools

School Type % Type of School in City Limits
School Type Charter Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 40.5%
School Type District Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 55.5%
School Type Magnet Schools
% Type of School in City Limits 4.0%

Compared to New York City, Washington, D.C. charter schools perform slightly better, with 33% of schools in the A range and a high distribution of schools in the B range. Magnet schools are the highest performing schools in this city, however.

So are charter schools better than traditional public schools?

Charter school performance varies so much from place to place, and each state has different laws concerning charter schools, proving it impossible to make an overall judgment about charter school performance compared to traditional public schools.

Find the Best Charter Schools in Your Area

Author: Alex Caffee

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