Background on Charter Schools

Female students, outside, talking in groups.

Houston ISD/Dave Einsel:

Charter Schools Provide an Alternative to Traditional Public Schools

Charter schools are public elementary and secondary schools that operate under a contract, or charter, outlining their performance goals and operations. They are exempt from some rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools in exchange for partial funding and accountability for producing certain results, set forth in each charter school's charter. 

Since their origin in the early 1990s, charter schools exist in 42 states plus the District of Columbia and number about 6,000 nationwide. During the 2012–13 school year, charter schools enrolled about 2 million students, composing 5 percent of the total enrollment in public schools.

Charter schools differ from traditional public schools in the following ways:

  • They are governed by charter agreements of three to five years that are reviewed and renewed by their authorizing agency.
  • They do not have elected boards.
  • They often have autonomy from certain state and district regulations and may determine their own budgets, class and school size, and length of school year depending on state law.
  • They are often not a party to collective bargaining agreements of teacher or administrative tenure.

Charter schools have generated considerable attention in state and national media and may provide:

  • A model for education reform;
  • Greater choice for parents for their children’s education; or
  • An opportunity for innovation.

Recent Congressional Action

The inclusion of charter schools in the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), significantly increased their visibility.

In 2013 the U.S. House of Representatives passed its version of ESEA that would authorize funding to expand the number of charter schools. 

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education began using state charter laws as a consideration in the awarding of the federal Race-to-the-Top competitive grant program.

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