Young student writing
Susan Pendergrass

As I wrote last week, even after 30 years charter schools remain a mystery to many people. Often, even the people who understand the basics about how charters operate are confused about whether they are public or private schools.

For the record: Charter schools are public schools. In fact, they’re commonly referred to as “public charter schools” by supporters and detractors alike. But misunderstanding about the issue has been surprisingly stubborn. In fact, a former Secretary of Education and current head of the U. S. Senate Education Committee said just two years ago, “There are some private charter schools, are there not?”

Charter schools have much more in common with traditional public schools than many people realize. Charters receive the same state and federal funding that any public school receives. In most cases, they also receive the local funding per student for the students who attend. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools must pay all of their costs, including the cost of buying or building the school, from their annual revenue.

The students in charter schools are public school students whose parents have chosen to send them to a charter school rather than send them to the public school to which they are assigned based on their address. They participate in all state testing and have all of the same rights and responsibilities of all public school students. It is illegal for charter schools to discriminate against any student who chooses them, to charge tuition, or to teach religion. If there are more parents who choose the school than there are seats, students must be selected through a public lottery. Parents are free to have their child return to their assigned public school at any time if they aren’t satisfied with the charter school.

The teachers at a charter school are public school teachers, although not usually required to be members of a local teacher’s union or collective bargaining agreement. The administration and board of each charter school has substantial discretion when it comes to hiring, paying, and firing their staff. In Missouri, charter school teachers are required to participate in the public pension plans for teachers.

Unfortunately, myths about charter schools abound, leading to serious misunderstandings. And because they’re not typical public schools and don’t answer to the local school board, opponents sometimes refer to them as private schools. But saying it doesn’t make it so.

About the Author

Susan Pendergrass
Director of Research and Education Policy

Susan Pendergrass was Vice President of Research and Evaluation for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools before joining the Show-Me Institute. Prior to coming to the National Alliance, Susan was a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush administration and a senior research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics during the Obama administration. She earned a Ph.D. in Public Policy from George Mason University.