Twelve studies find that overall gains in charter schools are larger than other public schools; four find charter schools? gains higher in certain significant categories of schools; six find comparable gains; and, four find that charter schools? overall gains lagged behind traditional schools.
Source: Charter School Achievement: What We Know, July 2005 Update
Though the specifics vary widely from state-to-state, charter school developers in many states proceed through several common stages in their school development process. This is an overview of that process. For additional resources on starting a charter school, please also see our list of resources for Charter School Development.
: I. Exploration
: II. Application
: III. Pre-Operations
: IV. Operations
Though the specifics vary widely from state-to-state, charter school developers in many states proceed through several common stages in their school development process. Below is an overview of that process. For additional resources on starting a charter school, please also see our list of resources for Charter School Development.
I. Exploration: Surveying the Scene and Laying the Groundwork
This phase includes exploring your reasons for choosing to start a charter school, gathering basic background information on charter schools in your state, and assembling a school design team and framework. It is also prudent to survey your community's readiness for a charter school.
Some charter developers begin the process somewhat informally, while others are more deliberate in their efforts--developing a strategic or business plan. Many charter school developers begin by gathering start-up funds from public or private sources, or their own pocket. Start-up funds can be obtained from federal or state planning grants or private foundation or corporate grants. Our Budget, Finance, and Fundraising page provides information on sources and strategies. Regardless of how the planning phase is structured or funded, there are a few steps most charter school developers will likely take.
Investigate State Laws and Policies
Charter developers should carefully review their own state's legislation early in the exploration process, as state laws authorizing charter schools vary significantly and change over time. See our State and Schools Information area to find individual state laws or our list of Reports Analyzing Charter Legislation to learn more about how they vary. Since existing charter legislation may be under revision or new laws proposed, you might want to investigate the status of pending legislation related to charter schools. Visit our list of resources on such Legislative Initiatives and Issues. Among other things, you will want to note which agencies are empowered to grant charters, what the required components of the charter application are, and whether there is a negotiation or appeals process in case your charter is denied.
Review Chartering Agency Policies
The state charter law defines who may grant a charter--often local or state school boards, sometimes universities or community colleges--and these charter granting agencies may have regulations or guidelines to explain how the legislation is implemented. These guidelines may give you additional information on what to include in the application and how to apply.
For instance, the Massachusetts Department of Education's Application for a Public School Charter: 2001-02 provides detailed guidelines for completing the application and describes the review process. Colorado's Jefferson County School District Charter School Application Processing Policy outlines the timelines and processes for charter review and evaluation in that district.
Assemble a Core Founding Group and Access Experts
The core founding group (design team, organizing committee) moves the charter school from dream to reality. They plan it, they write it, and some of them may operate it. This work requires a great amount of time and a wide variety of skills; thus your core team's expertise should be broadly based, but team members' vision should be narrowly focused on a shared educational mission. Expertise in the following areas may be key:
When recruiting people to join the core founding group, you may want to look for entrepreneurs; educators; lawyers; accountants; key community members; business people with personnel, management, and marketing experience; and visionaries. You will need people with strong organizational skills, potential charter school parents, and others. The expertise you don't find within your core group may be found through the local business community, colleges/universities, parents, and other community members. In addition, you may want to pursue state-level agencies found in our State and School Information area and regional service providers like the REL Network for assistance. You can also check our resource directory for a list of resources for Charter School Development.
- Curriculum and instruction
- Community relations and marketing
- Finance and fundraising
- Governance and management
- Legal issues, educational law
- Real estate
- Student assessment
- Writing charter school documents
Design a Comprehensive School Plan
Many charter school developers come together with an idea already in mind for what they want to accomplish. This idea needs to be fleshed out as a comprehensive school design framework, including the following:
We offer links to resources for Educational Program Design that may be helpful in the process.
- a clear and agreed-upon mission and vision
- an overview of the instructional program
- a description of school governance and administrative structure
- a staffing plan
- a statement of facilities needs, and
- a rough budget.
II. Application: Drafting, Presenting, and Getting the Charter Approved
This phase includes writing and negotiating the terms of an actual charter document and applying to a charter-granting agency for approval.
Drafting the Charter
The charter is a legal document granting permission to a group or individual to own and/or operate a public school. The purpose, content, and format of charter documents vary widely among states. Under Illinois law, for example, a charter is a binding legal contract between the granting agency and the school developers, specifying the terms of their relationship. In Minnesota, by contrast, a charter grants permission for the sponsor and developers to enter into a second contract that defines their relationship. Consult your state law (through our State and School Information area), and draft your document to address the required elements of a charter in your state. Generally, the key components of a strong charter application include the following:
Key Components of a Strong Charter Application
Additionally, our Federal Support section contains guidance on federal programs and the charter review process.
- Clear mission statement
- Statement of why the school is needed
- Description of the education program to be used
- Learning objectives for students
- Methods for student assessment
- Financial plan and 3-5 year budget projection
- Governance and/or organizational model
- Personnel policies
- Student enrollment and discipline policies
- Facilities information
- Insurance (as applicable)
- Compliance with state and federal regulations, as well as with any other requirements
- Reference to a pre-determined monitoring, evaluation, and renewal process
The charters below should only be considered samples since each school's charter will be unique to its own state and purpose.
Bowling Green Charter School is an elementary school in Sacramento, California, that "converted" to charter status in 1993.
Cheyenne Mountain Academy is a K-8 school in Colorado that started "from scratch."
Brooklawn Academy in Fairfield, Connecticut is a middle school that opened in 1998.
Charter school resource centers in some states, such as New York, also provide model charter applications.
Presenting and Getting the Charter Approved
To get the charter approved you need to maximize buy-in from stakeholders in the community you will serve. It is important to enlist community support for your charter school idea and to get to know members of the sponsoring (charter granting) agency. You can gather feedback from representatives of all segments of the community by circulating the application for review. You may also want to submit the draft charter to the staff of your sponsoring agency and/or school board for review. Carefully consider the feedback you receive and revise the application as applicable. This review stage can strengthen community support, which may prove instrumental once your charter is ready for formal submission. The last step of presenting your charter may involve attending committee hearings to discuss and review the application. Be prepared to show how your school will meet specific needs in the district: bring letters of support with you, and have supporters present at the meeting.
III. Pre-Operations: Getting Ready
This phase follows the approval of the charter application and includes the actual process of developing the school. Below are pointers for navigating this phase.
IV. Operations: Opening the Doors, Troubleshooting, and Making Improvements
- Develop a detailed plan and timeline with the core founding group listing all of the tasks that need to be accomplished before doors open. The plan should identify who will address each issue, when, and how, and how the work will be coordinated.
- Develop formal operating agreements with the sponsor district staff and/or non-district service providers to identify any services they will provide and the terms under which they will provide them. One example is the Charter School Contract from Colorado's Jefferson County School District.
- Establish the formal organization. As applicable, draft and file articles of incorporation, file for nonprofit status, recruit and install the governing board, and draft bylaws, policies, and an administrative structure. The following sample documents and resources may be helpful:
Guajome Park Academy Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation
Leadership High School Bylaws
Internet Nonprofit Center Startup Page
- Recruit and admit students; recruit and hire staff.
- Formalize the instructional program. Select and purchase instructional materials, choose methods of assessing student achievement, establish the school calendar, and plan professional development.
- Secure facility and support services, such as fiscal support (accounting, budget, payroll, banking, auditing, purchasing), transportation, food service, insurance, staff benefits, telecommunications, legal advice, custodial service, etc.
This stage includes the actual opening of the charter school, with its inevitable unforeseen issues. It also includes establishing the culture of the school, clarifying the school's expectations and beliefs, and beginning to use data on student performance as the primary guide for school planning and policymaking. At this point the work involved will be divided among the charter school teachers, administrator, and board. Several common areas of focus follow:
- Formally open the doors and celebrate the commencement of the school.
- Identify and address unforeseen glitches and constraints.
- Transition the school's governance structure from the initial "start-up" stages to one of ongoing policy-making and oversight.
- Establish or formalize relationships with community groups, supporters, the sponsor district, the media, and other potential partners.
- Refine curriculum and instruction.
- Collect and interpret student performance and achievement data, using it as the foundation for ongoing planning and school policy development.