All charter school developers and operators face complex legal issues in starting and running their schools. As a relatively new phenomenon, charter schools involve legal requirements and responsibilities which not only differ widely from state to state, but which may also change over time. Developers should therefore use caution in making use of the documents and links on this web site. The materials available here are not presented as "exemplary" or as a substitute for qualified legal or financial counsel.
I. State and Federal Legislation
A. Variation of Legal Definitions and Responsibilities by State
Charter school laws can vary widely both between and within states. In some states, charter schools are established as highly independent legal and fiscal entities. These schools often enjoy a wide degree of autonomy, but must also be prepared to manage their own legal and financial affairs. In other states, charter schools may have little or no legal and fiscal autonomy. Such schools generally enjoy little operational autonomy, but are responsible for a much shorter list of issues.
The exact legal status of charter schools depends on the specific terms of the state laws under which they are established. In many states, charter schools are highly independent legal entities with a legal status separate from that of the agency that grants the charter. In Minnesota, for example, all charter schools must be constituted as independent non-profit or cooperative corporations. In Wisconsin, by way of contrast, charter schools generally must be constituted as a legal arm of the local school district. Charter school developers need to be keenly aware of the legal status options and obligations provided by their state's laws. See our State and School Information area for links to charter school resource centers and state legislation.
B. Federal Laws and Regulations Pertaining to Charter Schools
Charter schools may also be subject to a number of laws and regulations at the federal level. As a legal entity providing educational services, charter schools may need to abide by many of the same laws as other public education agencies, such as the following:
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This act, recently reauthorized, contains much of the federal law governing services to special needs students. For clarification of this law and the broader issue of special education and charter schools, read the second edition of a report on special education that was originally produced in 1997 by Project FORUM at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) with support from the U. S. Department of Education: Charter Schools and the Education of Children With Disabilities, developed by Eileen Ahearn and Cheryl M. Lange with NASDSE.
Also developed by NASDSE is a study of special education policy in charter schools: Project SEARCH
For more general information on equity issues relating to federal legislation, or to join the EDEQUITY discussion list, see the WEEA Equity Online web site of the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Resource Center maintained by Education Development Center, Inc.
To investigate or research the constantly evolving case law surrounding charter school litigation, both in federal and state courts, operators can use the search engines at the following site:
A charter, in the most basic sense of the term, is a grant of permission to engage in some sort of activity. In the charter school environment, a charter is often a legal document granting permission to a group or individual to own and/or operate a public school. The content, form, and format of charter documents varies widely among and between states. Under Illinois law, for example, a charter serves as a binding legal contract between the charter granting agency and the charter school developers, specifying the terms of the school-sponsor relationship. In Minnesota, in contrast, a charter is effectively a grant of permission for the charter granting agency and charter developers to enter into a second, separate contract that specifies the terms and conditions of the relationship between the charter developer and granting agency.
B. Other Binding Legal Agreements (Contracts, Articles of Incorporation, etc.)
In many states and localities, charter schools enter into contracts or side-agreements that may more clearly specify the terms and understandings that are contained in the charter document. One example of such an agreement is the Charter School Contract developed by the Jefferson County School District in Colorado. It contains over 20 pages of detailed provisions addressing a variety of legal, financial, and operational matters between the district and charter schools.
In states with more restrictive legislation, a charter school is typically constituted as an extension of the local school district or charter granting agency. These schools generally do not enter into any formal incorporation or establishment process, but may enter into a less formal memorandum of understanding with the charter granting agency.
In other states, charter schools are independent public entities or may incorporate pursuant to the state's corporation laws (usually non-profit). Charter developers should carefully investigate legal status issues specified in their states' laws and work with qualified legal counsel. Legally independent charter schools may need to formally incorporate their schools. Such schools may find the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws for the Guajome Park Academy Charter School in Vista, California helpful. This school has been in operation since 1994 and had its original charter renewed for a second, five-year term.
Charter schools that are not legally independent may also want to develop a set of bylaws for their school to clarify the school's governance and decision-making structure. Some sample documents and helpful links include the following:
Depending on their states' laws, charter schools may enter into a variety of contracts and relationships with a variety of service providers. These may range from simpler (though by no means simple) leases and service agreements to more complex agreements for the management and operation of entire schools. Some samples of these documents include:
Sonoma Valley Charter Lease. This lease agreement, between the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (Sonoma Valley, CA) and the Sonoma Valley Charter School is one example of how a school district and a charter school may cooperate on facilities matters. The district leases the school, formerly a closed district site, for $1 per year to the charter school.
Out of the Box. This online charter school facility guide by Bryan Hassel has several helpful resources, ideas about leases, lease agreements, and other facility arrangements.
B. Personnel Policies and Employment Law
Governing boards of charter schools often develop a number of different sets of policies to guide the operation of their school. Since schools are usually staff-intensive organizations, the personnel policies are among the most important policy documents at any school. These policies are typically adopted by the school's governing board and provided to each staff member. They may be incorporated into the school's employment contracts.
Developing personnel policies requires careful alignment with the school’s mission, vision, legal structure, bylaws, and applicable state and federal labor laws. Given the evolving legal status of charter schools and the often-sensitive nature of employment law, charter school developers must develop personnel policies using qualified and experienced legal counsel. These policies usually need to be reexamined and modified on a regular basis to ensure congruence with the school's long-term goals and changes in employment law. Try the following helpful resources:
Labor Relations and California's Charter Schools by Eric Premack of the Charter Schools Development Center. This briefing paper addresses the role of labor relations laws and employee unions in charter schools. The paper outlines the fundamentals of labor relations in "regular," non-charter public schools, explains why charter schools are controversial in the labor community, and looks at how charter schools are addressing challenging staffing and labor relations issues throughout the charter development process.
C. Contracts with Parents and Students
Dozens of charter schools enter into various forms of contracts with parents and students. The form and content of these agreements vary widely. In some schools, these contracts are quite general in nature and merely outline some of the expectations of the school regarding student conduct and parent involvement in their children's education. In other schools, these contracts may be quite specific and contain very specific support or involvement requirements. Still other schools enter into contracts with parents and students that outline the obligations and responsibilities of both the school and the parent/student. Though some people criticize these contracts, others view them as an essential ingredient of an effective parent and student involvement policy. Following are examples of parent participation contracts from several charter schools: