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PMA Sector Spotlight: Charter Schools

PMA looks at Charter Schools in our Sector Spotlight this month.

Charter schools serve as a good educational alternative to the traditional public school, as they are not held to the same restraints. With the schools free to innovate, their focus, mission, and charter can be created to more closely align with what’s important and attractive to its founders (i.e. arts or science focus, high academic standards, inner-city youth, etc.)

Author Betheny Gross, a researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) at the University of Washington, argues that autonomy makes it possible for charter schools to better utilize leadership and staff in serving their student population.

Programs can be developed to accommodate diverse student needs, such as returning dropout students or ethnic minority students in impoverished neighborhoods. Disadvantaged students’ have better access to college prep programs as well.

With more control over staffing, curriculum, programs, and budgets, principals of charter schools have real power to lead. Similarly, teacher influence in the classroom and school are far more reaching when their professional development is linked to the mission of the school.

The focused mission of charter schools, along with a committed team, strong leadership and informal structure make assessment and change easier to occur. If it seems a charter school is off course, it can change direction much faster than its traditional school counterpart.

With the freedom from public educational restrictions to innovate and educate, there are also accompanying pitfalls that charter schools must navigate.

Funding

Most charter schools receive less funding per student than public schools; and as part of the public education system, charter schools cannot charge tuition. Lower funding can lead to lower quality facilities, technology, program offerings and lack of transportation. Also, waiting lists are often present as charter schools often do not have the funding to expand and/or accommodate all students wanting to enroll.

Charter Schools must fundraise, but don’t usually have professional fundraiser on staff. Fundraising falls in the laps of a board and staff who are ill-trained to raise necessary funding.

Charter School Boards

Boards are not always diverse enough to have a good “balance” of members with differing skills, perspectives, and backgrounds (e.g. community leaders that are not parents). The boards are often lacking in professional competence in financial, managerial or administrative areas, and can be guilty of “micromanaging” – becoming entangled with issues normally entrusted to the administrator or teachers.

Charter school boards have two key charges:

  1. Fiduciary Responsibility
    1. to properly manage and be accountable for the public funds allotted to your school
  2. Governance
    1. ensure the charter’s mission of your school is being met
    2. create and maintain school policies which are lawful, fair, and provide protection for all of the school’s constituents
    3. Supervise the lead administrator

Charter schools are not magic bullets. There are predictable shortcomings which accompany a school that operates outside of public education and it must be considered that charter schools are still held to a state standard in test scores. There are consequences, including closure, if scores consistently do not meet requirements.

If you are, however, frustrated with public education and not in the market for private education, with the multitude of varying school sizes, shapes and focus available today, there may be a charter school that fits perfectly the needs and desires of your family.