In the early 1990's, charter schools were a new concept being implemented by a few states and communities across the country. Today there are approximately 3,000 charter schools operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia. The growth of charter schools has compelled personnel in state education agencies to get "up to speed" in understanding what charter schools are and how they affect the responsibilities of state education agency (SEA) personnel. Understanding what charter schools are and how they impact SEA responsibilities is particularly important in the realm of special education, as special education needs and operations often cut across many different SEA departments.
This is one section of a Primer prepared for state officials on special education in charter schools. It is intended to give SEA personnel an overview of charter schools by answering some of the most basic questions about the history of charter schools and how they are defined—particularly for those with little or no knowledge of charter schools. As charter school law is specific to each state, there is great variability among the states. Consequently, SEA personnel should be knowledgeable about their own state law and understand how it defines or influences their professional responsibilities. Other sections of this primer delineate issues relevant for SEA personnel specific to charter schools and special education. This section focuses on providing general background on charter schools in order to provide a larger context for SEA personnel.
Why do SEA personnel need to know about charter schools?
Because charter schools are public schools, SEAs are responsible for these schools as they are for any other public schools. Because state-level special education needs cut across several departments, SEA personnel in transportation, finance, monitoring, accountability, special education and many other areas need to know what their responsibilities are in relation to charter schools. This section of the primer for state officials provides some basic information for those who are not familiar with the underlying charter school concept.
How are charter schools defined?
Section 5210(1) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) defines the term "charter school" to mean a public school that:
- in accordance with specific State statute authorizing the granting of charters to schools, is exempt from significant State or local rules that inhibit the flexible operation and management of pubic schools, but not from any rules relating to the other requirements of the [paragraph that sets forth the Federal definition];
- is created by a developer as a public school, or is adapted by a developer from an existing public school, and is operated under public supervision and direction;
- operates in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives determined by the school's developer and agreed to by the authorized public chartering agency;
- provides a program of elementary or secondary education, or both;
- is nonsectarian in its programs, administration policies, employment practices, and all other operations, and is not affiliated with a sectarian school or religious institution;
- does not charge tuition;
- complies with the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act;
- is a school to which parents choose to send their children, and that admits students on the basis of a lottery, if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated;
- agrees to comply with the same Federal and State audit requirements as do other elementary schools and secondary schools in the State, unless such requirements are specifically waived for the purpose of this program;
- meets all applicable Federal, State, and local health and safety requirements; and
- has a written performance contract with the authorized pubic chartering agency in the State that includes a description of how student performance will be measured in charter school pursuant to State assessments that are required of other schools and pursuant to any other assessments mutually agreeable to the authorized public chartering agency and the charter school.
What is the history of charter schools?
The charter school movement has roots in a number of other education reform ideas, including alternative schools, site-based management, magnet schools, public school choice, privatization and communityparental empowerment. The term "charter" may have originated in the 1970's when New England educator Ray Budde suggested that small groups of teachers be given contracts or "charters" by their local school boards to explore new approaches. Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, then publicized the idea, suggesting that local boards could charter an entire school with union and teacher approval. In the late 1980's, Philadelphia started a number of schools-within-schools and called them "charters." Some of them were schools of choice. The idea was further refined in Minnesota, where the concept of charter schools was expanded to include three basic values: opportunity, choice and responsibility for results. In 1991, Minnesota passed the first state charter school law, with California following suit in 1992. By 1995, 19 states had enacted laws allowing for the creation of charter schools, and by 2007 that number increased to 40 states plus the District of Columbia with over 4,000 charter schools in operation. (For further information, see http://www.uscharterschools.org/pub/uscs_docs/o/history.htm)
What are some typical characteristics of charter schools?
Charter schools start after the passage of laws by individual state legislatures that specifically permit their existence as part of the public school system in that state. There is wide variability among the states in how charter schools are defined. One common feature of all charter school laws is that a charter school must be authorized by a specific entity or entities designated in the law. In most states, charter school law stipulates that a charter school must be authorized by an entity such as a local or county school board, state board of education, college or university, municipal body, special-purpose board, or a nonprofit organization meeting certain criteria. The charter school is approved for a set period, most often three to five years, and the authorizer typically has oversight responsibility that is tied to a charter school's renewal of its charter for operation.
How are charter schools funded?
As public schools, charters are not allowed to charge tuition, and they are funded according to enrollment. In some states, such as Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota and New Jersey, they receive less than 100 percent of the funds allocated to their traditional counterparts for the operation of public schools. In other states, like California, additional funds or loans are made available to them. In most states, charters do not receive capital funds for facilities. They are entitled to federal categorical funding for which their students are eligible, such as Title I and special education monies. Federal legislation provides grants to help charters with start-up costs.
How many states have charter school laws and how many students are enrolled?
As of the 2007-08 school year, 40 states plus the District of Columbia had passed charter school laws. Although only about two percent of America's public school students were enrolled in charter schools in that school year, the charter school movement remains a high-profile component of the public education system in the United States.
Do all states have the same number of charter schools operating in their states?
No, the number of charter schools varies greatly by state. As of the 2007-08 school year, there are over 4,000 charter schools in operation with a total enrollment of over 1.2 million students. California has the highest number of charters with over 700 schools in operation. (National statistics and other data on charter schools are maintained online by the Center for Education Reform at www.edreform.com.)
What are the major differences between charter schools and other public schools?
There are four major ways in which charter schools differ from other public schools.
- First, charter schools are schools of choice where parents choose to enroll their children rather than enrolling them by district assignment.
- Second, charter schools are typically exempt from some of the regulations required for other public schools, although the degree of freedom varies greatly from state to state.
- Third, charter schools are often allowed autonomy for many, if not all, areas related to operating a school.
- Fourth, an essential element of the charter concept is that charter schools will be held accountable for performance goals defined in their charter or their performance contract with their authorizing agency. If they fail to meet those goals and do not operate in compliance with relevant laws and regulations, they may be closed. These expectations may be quite specific to the charter school, or they may be more general and similar to, or the same as, the accountability requirements for other public schools in their district or state.
Do students with disabilities attend charter schools?
Yes. Students with disabilities may not be discriminated against or refused entry into any charter school on the basis of their disability status. Recent estimates suggest that approximately 12 percent of charter school students are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but this average masks the wide variation that exists between and within states. Some charter schools report that 100 percent of their students are served by special education (schools that target a special population) while others have very few, if any, students with disabilities enrolled.
What other resources provide information about charter schools?
The most comprehensive charter school website providing extensive information about charter schools is at http://www.uscharterschools.org
Other valuable national sites are the National Association of Charter School Authorizers at http://www.qualitycharters.org and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools at http://www.publiccharters.org/