what are Charter schools


So I’ve seen some stuff about charter schools but I’m not from the states and don’t think my country has them (if they do I’m not aware and they aren’t well know).

They seem a little controversial and I’m not getting why (apart from what seems like gentrification. But again don’t know what they are so I might be wrong) so please ELI5

In: 10

“Charter” here means “contract”. A Charter School is one that is owned and operated by a private business, but receives taxpayer money (government funding) in order to actually work. Unlike purely Private Schools, a Charter School cannot charge tuition as part of its contract to the government.

One big reason why they are controversial is that many people are not satisfied with the quality of existing public schools and would rather see their tax money going in to supporting and developing the public school system itself, rather than going to specialized charter schools.

They can also be controversial because they might be fulfilling the terms of their contract (meaning, they might be teaching kids what the school district requires them to learn about cells in biology or the quadratic formula in algebra), but they can also have a very specific agenda based heavily on, for instance, certain religious views. Some people are not OK with the fact that they pay taxes that then goes into a school where students are learning potentially discriminatory or biased material.

A charter school is a publicly funded yet privately owned school. This means they don’t follow the state’s set curriculum and rules for schools. This allows them to pick what they teach and do, but they don’t pay for it, rather it’s tax payer money.

This is controversial because people believe privately owned schools should be privately funded, as the public doesn’t know what those funds are actually going towards. People generally don’t like taxpayer money going towards things that aren’t regulated, it’s the same reason stimulus checks were controversial. They also don’t know what these schools are teaching, and a lot of topics many people find unfit for schools, which here in the states is a big no-no recently.

You’re a 5 year old. Your mom wants you to be healthy, so every night she cooks you a nice healthy dinner with vegetables, some protein, and all the things you need to grow up big and strong, following the rules of good nutrition. Of course she doesn’t charge you for meals, these are provided by the family at no cost to you. This is equivalent to public schools that follow the standard educational curriculum, and are supported by public money. And the curriculum is based on the current best practice as indicated by relevant research, to give students a “healthy” education.

Now, as a typical 5 year old, you don’t particularly want to follow those nutritional rules, you’d rather eat candy for every meal. Your mom clearly isn’t too happy about this, but in the interests of “freedom”, she says to you “fine, you can eat candy for every meal, BUT you need to pay for it all out of your own, I’m not going to buy you candy”. It’s not a great thing for the kid, but hey, it’s their money, their choice. This is equivalent to private schools – the students pay fees, the schools can then teach them whatever they want, they don’t need to follow the standard curriculum. They can be as healthy or unhealthy as they want to be, but it doesn’t cost any public money.

Now, in the final scenario our petulant 5 year old who wants to eat candy for every meal says to his mom “hey, since I’m not eating the meals you used to make for me, you should give me the money you would have spent on those meals. Then I can go buy my own candy with THAT money!” So the mom, through some kind of insanity, takes the $50 per week or whatever those nice healthy, nutritious meals would have cost, and gives that money to the 5 year old, who then goes and stuffs himself full of candy morning and night. These are *charter schools*, who somehow manage to not follow the public curriculum, but get public money anyway.

eli5: Normally, a town runs the schools in it and uses a big piggy bank to pay for everything the school needs. Every grown-up in the town pays a little bit of money to the bank so all of the kids in the town can go to the school for free. A charter school is a school that gets money from the same piggy bank, but does not listen to the town about how the school should work. Teachers in charter schools may not be allowed to be teachers in a regular school, and the school may focus on different subjects than a regular school or not teach a subject (like science) at all. Many people think that charter schools are a problem because they get money from the town without listening to all of the parents, but some people think that charter schools are a good thing because they give parents a choice for what kind of school they send their kids to; this can seem good to them if the charter school has the same religion or believes the same thing as the parents.

However, for every kid that goes to a charter school, the regular schools in town get less money from the piggy bank. Many regular schools already don’t have enough money, so this can be a real issue for parents who want their kids to go to the regular school. Most teachers think that charter schools are a bad idea because they take the town’s money to teach things that won’t be helpful to the kids when they are grown-ups, if they teach anything at all. Because charter schools are special, they don’t have to follow the same rules regular schools do; for example, regular schools have to provide ramps for kids in wheelchairs so they can get in and out of the school, but charter schools don’t have to do this — this is one of many differences. Sometimes charter schools are run by a “shell company,” which is what happens when businesspeople make a business that takes money from one place and puts it in another place. For a charter school, the money is taken out of the town’s big piggy bank, goes through the shell company, and into the pockets of the businesspeople, who are often the principal and teachers at the charter school. Usually these schools are pretty bad schools, and the principal ends up on the news channel for taking money from the town without teaching the kids. Sadly, most of the time, nothing bad happens to the principal or the teachers for taking the money because they are friends with the people who run the town, like the mayor and the city council — sometimes, they are even friends with the governor of the State! These people make it hard to punish the bad businesspeople because the businesspeople give them money from the shell company to run for re-election, as well as to spend on themselves.

To understand charter schools, you first have to understand the other two major kinds of schools in the US: Public schools, and private schools.

Private schools are privately funded, meaning you pay tuition to go to them. Some have other forms of funding as well – trust funds given by past students, etc.; but the important thing is that they get no money from the government (usually). Because of this, they usually don’t have as much regulation as long as they can get their students to pass certain standardized tests or other benchmarks. Private schools also have a lot of control over who goes: as long as you aren’t discriminating on some protected grounds (race I believe is covered – but gender isn’t: there are all-boy and all-girl private schools; and religious private schools in the US are pretty common), you can pretty much decide who does and does not attend your school.

Public schools are publicly funded, meaning they are paid for and run by the government. Because of this, elected school boards have almost complete control over what gets taught; in some cases down to which books can and can not be used in classrooms. In most (maybe all) of the US, schools are primarily funded with property taxes – meaning the amount of money a school gets is based on the price of houses in the area; though States and the Federal Government provide some money through larger programs. Public schools are also publicly available – in most cases, the only rule is that you live in a certain area; sometimes just “in the same city”.

Charter schools are basically publicly funded, but operate more like private schools. Like public schools, they get money primarily from the government (Some have individual grants, often based on teaching goals or ideological reasons), which comes from the local school board(s – some get money from multiple cities; or from both city and county school boards). Also, like public schools, they can’t charge tuition or have other financial requirements for attendance. Like private schools, they get less oversight – more than private schools, but sometimes way less than public schools. They also have more control over who gets to attend – in some cases, nearly as much as private schools.

Regarding the controversy.

There’s three main problems that some charter schools run afoul of – all of them enough to earn charter schools as a unit a reputation:

Fueling these problems is the fact that charter schools are funded by school districts. Because of this, and the fact that schools in the US are chronically underfunded and undersupported, many supporters of public schools see charter schools as taking resources from public schools. If charter schools were competing for students and money on equal grounds, this might be less of a problem – and if there were more than enough resources, this wouldn’t be a problem – but, as these problems will illustrate, enough charter schools exist that take advantage of the system that there is ill will between public school supporters and charter school supporters.

The first problem is that charter schools can select their students – and many take blatant advantage of this. Notably, students who don’t speak English, students with moderate to severe special needs, and other students who have higher needs often aren’t given the chance to go to charter schools. These students often cost the schools they *do* go to a lot of money. And, on the other hand, charter schools are very happy to not only take in, but sometimes make offers to, students who can bring in money: school performance groups (band, chorus, dance, etc.), competition groups (sports or academic), and so on. Because of these things, there is a perception that charter schools aren’t carrying their fair share of the load from the public school system they are drawing students from.

A second problem is that charter schools aren’t always required to have credentialed teachers teaching classes. At least in most states, you have to have a teaching credential issued by the state you are in (some states allow credentials from certain other states) in order to teach in a public school, with some exceptions (computer science, PE, some arts – again, varies by state); and without a teaching credential, you aren’t allowed to teach – at a public school. AND, when they are required, they aren’t bound by district pay schedules – which means they can pick and choose the best teachers in areas where there are more demand for teachers (notably, math, science, and special ed – at least where I am, there is a lot of turnover in those areas). This also creates a problem with oversight – credentialed teachers are “mandated reporters”, meaning that they legally must report child abuse if they believe it is happening, and are trained in what child abuse looks like (at least a little); but if a charter school doesn’t have credentialed teachers there, child abuse can go undetected.

Third are the outright frauds. While some of these schools perpetuate fraud on the students, taking in students without teaching anything; more perpetuate fraud on the state, either claiming students they aren’t teaching (and sometimes don’t exist) or not teaching to the requirements (often the case for religious schools). While these schools almost always get caught out, it’s usually after getting several years of government money without anything to show for it. And while this is the least prevalent of the three problems; it happens enough that even charter school supporters have to acknowledge this as one of the great problems with charter schools.

And I’m going to go a little more into detail about religious charter schools – because this IS a MAJOR nationwide issue. In many places, religious communities (often conservative; most frequently Christian but occasionally Jewish or Muslim; almost always in large towns and small cities) will manage to take over a school board, and divert a significant portion of the budget to their charter schools at the expense of everyone else. Many attacks on public education from the Republican Party are intended to move money away from public schools and towards Christian charter schools; where they can both discriminate against people as long as they don’t get caught doing it on protected class (“the student doesn’t fit in” covers a lot – including race; and entrance tests that cover specific material that some races are less likely to know covers a lot more).

By way of source:

I am a substitute teacher at a set of charter schools. I am friends with many teachers both in the same set of charter schools, as well as multiple public school districts. My experience includes watching as one of the schools I worked for go through “recharter” – getting it’s permission to be open using government money renewed – which it failed, causing the school to close. I also spent part of high school at a charter school.

The charter schools I work at are – I believe – some of the good ones. There’s also a local charter high school that specifically takes “problem cases” – students who don’t fit in well at other high schools, and focuses on getting them past the GED (a test that, if passed, gives the equivalent of a high school degree) and then the support they need; and I’ve talked with at least one of the teachers there.

However, I’ve also seen the bad of them, including my own high school experience, where I might have been better able to pass the AP Physics test than my physics teacher (I believe she was credentialed – just not in science. See previous comment about math and science teachers being in high demand). That school also didn’t have, as far as I’m aware, any special education teachers – because it didn’t need them: if you needed one, you weren’t at that school.