Charter Schools: Facts & Issues
Published by the
LWVAL Education Fund
April 2011

I.   Definitions of charter schools

As with most information associated with charter schools there are differences in the way the basic features of charter schools are described. Here are four examples of the ways they vary in wording and detail:

  • The Heritage Foundation offers this definition: “Charter schools are publicly funded schools that agree to meet performance standards set by the state but are otherwise freed from the bureaucratic rules and regulations that encumber traditional school systems.”3
  • The League of Women Voters of Auburn (now East Alabama), in its 1999 study of charter and magnet school, used this: “Charter schools are distinct legal entities. They are public schools that are financed by public funds but are governed by their own specific charters and not by traditional public school regulations.”
  • In a frequently asked question section posted in connection with a series on charter schools, the Public Broadcasting System put forth this description: “In effect, a charter school is a one-school public school district. A group of people — educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs or others — write the charter plan describing the school‘s guiding principles, governance structure, and applicable accountability measures. If the state approves the charter, the state funds the charter on a per pupil basis. In most cases charter schools operate under a clear agreement between the state and the school: increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. Because they are schools of choice, they are held to the highest level of accountability — consumer demand.”4
  • US Charter Schools, an informational web site developed by a consortium of organizations interested in providing accurate information and promising practices about and for charter schools, offers this definition: “Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The 'charter' establishing each such school is a performance contract detailing the school‘s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success. The length of time for which charters are granted varies, but most are granted for 3-5 years. At the end of the term, the entity granting the charter may renew the school's contract. Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor — usually a state or local school board — to produce positive academic results and adhere to the charter contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for this accountability. They are accountable for both academic results and fiscal practices to several groups: the sponsor that grants them, the parents who choose them, and the public that funds them.”5

Charter schools are not the same as magnet schools; though both are public schools that do not charge tuition, they differ in the ways they operate. Magnet schools are established by a school district and are governed the same as the other public schools in that system. Charter schools are established by parents, educators, or organizations that request and receive a charter from a state-approved authorizing entity and operated independently of the traditional school system, with their own governing body determining policies. Magnet schools are required to follow local and state regulations regarding curriculum, personnel, and management; charter schools are exempt from parts of the curriculum, personnel and management regulations that govern other public schools. The structure of the exemptions varies from state to state. (Charter and magnet schools are required to follow the same civil rights, health, and safety requirements applicable to traditional public schools.) Magnet schools may set selective admission requirements; charter schools must be open to all students. When applicants exceed the number of slots available, both magnet and charter schools use a lottery system to determine entry.

© 2011 League of Women Voters of Alabama Education Fund. All rights reserved.