Clarifying the Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools Debate


By Dr. Amy Burkman
Program Director, M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision

As school choice becomes more pervasive in political discussion, the proliferation of charter schools (a.k.a., “charters”) also continues to increase.  Many charters are being developed as an alternative to traditional public schools, although charters are public schools by definition. In fact, they’re similar to traditional public school in the following ways:

  • Charters cannot charge tuition. These schools are funded through public education funds and through grants.
  • Charters must offer open enrollment until they reach capacity. Once a charter school reaches capacity, new student selections must be performed via a random lottery and without discrimination.
  • Students must meet state and national academic requirements that apply to all traditional public schools.

Both charter schools and traditional schools focus on student achievement. They must show that students are meeting standards and that funding is being used appropriately.

However, the types of services offered and the methods of teaching can differ greatly. Because charters were developed to be innovative and to have less restrictions than traditional public schools, there are some striking differences between the two systems:

  • By definition, a charter school must utilize innovative approaches to education. A charter is not awarded to a school that plans to be structured the same as local schools.
  • Administrators have the freedom to meet academic standards and increase student achievement in whatever ways they choose as long as they meet accountability standards. Administrators can use online learning, subject matter experts, and other learning methods that can be proven to increase student achievement.
  • The goal of creating a charter school is to find effective strategies that can be shared with the broader public school system. Charter schools are designed to be “lab schools” where new innovations can be tried and tested.
  • Many charter school employees do not have to be certified by the state.
  • Most charter schools do not have to offer teacher contracts and instead operate on an at-will basis with all employees.

Due to the requirement for charters to meet student achievement standards, there have been relatively few quality issues. If a charter school does not meet student achievement standards, the school is simply shut down and the charter is given to another campus.

There is one issue that is not often discussed regarding charters– teacher unions. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), only about 12 percent of charter schools are unionized. Unless state or local laws require teachers to participate in unions, the decision to unionize is typically made at the school level. There have been a few cases in areas like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia where unions have become more innovative as a result of partnering with charter schools.

[Read the informative NAPCS article, “Charter Schools and Teachers Unions.”]

Ultimately, the charter school concept was developed to allow environments where transformative ideas in education could be practiced and evaluated to better the public school experiences of all students. Charters typically exist in areas where there are low-performing schools in an effort to provide more student choice. By allowing these schools to test innovations and share challenges and successes with other schools, all students in all schools can benefit.

About the Author:

Amy Burkman is the director of the M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program at APUS. Prior to moving to higher education she was a school administrator, a teacher, and a school librarian. She received her Doctor of Education from Texas Christian University and she holds educator certification in Texas, where she resides with her family.


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One thought on “Clarifying the Traditional Schools vs. Charter Schools Debate

  1. Joe Bellacero

    In terms of the declared purposes and requirements of charter schools, Amy is correct. In terms of the realities, far from it. Just as there are wide variations in public schools from district to district, there are wide variations in the way charter schools function, are vetted and innovate. The “clarifying” done here is about as useful as clarifying the Common Core Standards by summarizing what they say–which has little to do with how they are being rolled out in various districts and implemented in different states not to mention how individual schools approach them.

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