Charter schools were originally created to give parents more choices in where their children go to school. It was also suggested that competition between charter schools and public schools would lead to better educational programs for all students.
With fierce supporters on both sides, “charter schools vs. public schools” has become a frequent topic of debate in the United States. So, what’s the difference? Are charter schools better than public schools? Which schools do colleges prefer?
In this guide, we’ll clear up the charter schools vs. public schools debate and help you determine which option could be best for you.
What Is a Charter School?
Like traditional public schools, charter schools are publicly funded and completely free. Students don’t have to pass an entrance exam or meet other requirements to attend.
Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are independently operated. Since they aren’t bound by national curriculum standards and regulations, charter schools have more autonomy when it comes to instruction, staffing, scheduling, school models, and more. They can structure their schools to best meet the needs of their students.
The process of opening a charter school begins with sending a proposal to a government-approved authorizing agency. If the proposal is approved, the authorizer creates a contract (called a “charter”) with the school’s governing board. The charter outlines the school’s responsibilities, rights, and performance expectations.
Charter schools are still held accountable for their performance, but they answer to different authorities than traditional public schools. If a charter school doesn’t meet the expectations in its contract, it can be closed. This is often called the “charter school bargain” because schools accept greater accountability in exchange for more flexibility and autonomy.
How Are Charter Schools Different from Traditional Public Schools?
In addition to the principles of accountability and autonomy, there are many key differences between traditional public schools and charter schools. Other differences to consider include choice, curriculum, class sizes, extracurricular activities, uniforms, school calendar, and discipline policies.
As we dive into each of these differences below, think about which factors appeal to you and which don’t sound like a good fit. Do you think charter schools can provide a better fit for your needs and learning style?
Choice is another core principle of charter schools. At traditional public schools, students are assigned to a school based on where they live. On the other hand, students attend charter schools by choice. Charter schools don’t have assigned school zones, and students’ families request a seat to attend.
If enough seats are available, all applicants are admitted. But if a charter school receives more applications than the number of available seats, they hold a randomized blind lottery to select students. Some schools give preference to students based on needs or location.
As the reason for their existence, choice is at the core of charter schools. They aim to provide a wider variety of educational options for students and families, so every student can find a school that meets their most essential needs.
Because they have more flexibility, charter schools can adopt specialized themes and innovative programs. Themes may include technology, performing arts, and career or college prep. Some charter schools are bilingual, with the entire curriculum taught in two languages.
Other charter schools follow a Montessori curriculum, and online charter schools deliver all classes virtually. There are even charters structured around game-design and systems learning, environmental stewardship, animal-related careers, STEM, Chinese immersion, and much more. At some charter schools, additional support is provided for families. For instance, schools designed for English language learners sometimes offer language classes for parents too.
Every charter school is unique and the possibilities are endless, providing a variety of options to find the best fit for you.
Public school class sizes are determined by the number of students in the area and the size of the building. Class sizes vary, and schools sometimes get overcrowded.
Charter schools limit the number of students who can enroll, allowing for smaller classes and more one-on-one instruction. Some charter schools emphasize personalized learning, giving students a say in what they learn based on their interests and goals. Others offer courses designed for extra instruction and mentoring as needed.
If you learn best in a more personalized setting or benefit from extra support, attending a charter school may be a great option for you.
Charter schools do offer extracurricular activities, but they often have fewer options for sports and other activities than traditional public schools. At many charter schools, a fee is required to participate in extracurricular programs.
If there’s a must-have extracurricular activity for you, like a school band or a basketball team, research charter schools in your area to see if they offer these opportunities.
Uniforms are much more common in charter schools than in traditional public schools, although some charter schools don’t require them.
School uniforms can be expensive, charter schools may free uniforms or other support to students if necessary. Although uniforms shouldn’t be the deciding factor in where you go to school, it’s worth noting that you’re likely to be required to pay for and wear a uniform if you attend a charter school.
Charter schools also have flexibility in scheduling and the school calendar. They can have longer school days or a longer school year if they choose.
Some operate on a year-round calendar. The number of instructional days is still roughly 180, but the calendar is divided into shorter instructional and vacation blocks.
If scheduling is an important factor for you, research school calendars for charter schools in your area before making a decision.
Many charter schools have higher rates of expulsion than traditional public schools and are known for having stricter discipline policies. In some cases, critics argue that charter schools do a poor job of serving students with disabilities.
Opponents of charter schools argue that they attract academically talented students with involved parents away from public schools, then push students who are more challenging to educate back into public schools. Of course, policies vary at every school, just like policies vary at traditional public schools.
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Are Charter Schools Better Than Traditional Public Schools?
Neither charter schools nor traditional public schools are “better” than the other. The best option for you depends on your interests and needs. It’s also important to know that the quality of charter schools and the quality of traditional public schools varies widely. There are excellent public schools and struggling public schools, and the same is true of charter schools. Rather than making generalizations, it’s better to compare specific schools.
While many of the best-performing schools in the nation are charter schools, studies on the performance of charter schools vs. public schools have conflicting results. Some studies show that results are about the same across the board, while others indicate that students who attend charter schools learn at a faster rate than their public school counterparts. Research also suggests that charter schools can be particularly beneficial for students of color and students who live in poverty.
Ultimately, the best fit for you depends on the schools in your area and your needs and interests. If you’re zoned for an excellent public school and don’t have high-quality charter schools in your area, then public school may be the best choice. On the other hand, if nearby charter schools are outperforming your local public school, it’s a good idea to look into those options.
You should also consider your interests, goals, and needs. Do you learn better in small classes? Attending a charter school might serve you well. Are you a dedicated soccer player? Note that some charter schools don’t have soccer programs, or don’t have particularly competitive programs. Is there a quality charter school near you that aligns with your career goals? If so, it’s worth pursuing.
How Do Colleges View Charter Schools vs. Public Schools?
In general, colleges view charter schools the same way they view traditional public schools. No matter what school you attend, admissions committees will look at the difficulty of your coursework and your overall academic performance. They will also consider your extracurricular involvement.
So, if you’re thinking about attending a charter school, look into the curriculum. Is it challenging? Is the charter school high-performing? If you attend a rigorous school and excel, it will make your college applications more competitive. Of course, this is true whether you attend a charter school or a traditional public school.
You should also look into extracurricular options. Is there opportunity to be highly involved in your area(s) of interest at nearby charter schools? If not, it may be better to attend a public school or ensure that you find other ways to get involved in your community.
Lastly, attending a charter school may give your application a boost if it’s closely aligned with your intended major and career goals. For example, let’s say you want to major in a STEM field and work in a STEM-related career. If you attend a high-performing STEM charter school, it will certainly look good on your applications. But excelling in STEM classes and participating in relevant extracurricular activities at your local public school will also make a great impression.
Here’s the bottom line: Attend a school where you can take challenging classes and excel in them. Pursue extracurricular activities that you’re passionate about, and make the most of available opportunities – whether that’s at a charter school or a traditional public school.
Final Thoughts: Charter Schools vs. Public Schools
Both charter schools and public schools are publicly funded, tuition-free, and open to all students, with no entrance exam required. The main difference is that charter schools have more flexibility to structure the curriculum, calendar, and class sizes. Charter schools sometimes have fewer extracurricular options and stricter discipline policies than traditional public schools, and they are more likely to require uniforms.
So, is it better to attend a charter school or a traditional public school? Which option do colleges prefer? The answer is that it depends. It’s more helpful to research specific schools in your area than to make generalizations about charter schools vs. public schools, because the quality varies widely. You should also evaluate your needs when it comes to factors like curriculum and class size.
If you’re thinking about attending a charter school, look into nearby options and evaluate their performance, extracurricular options, and curriculum. If there’s a high-performing charter school in your area that aligns with your goals and offers the opportunities that are most important to you, it’s worth considering.
Ultimately, what matters to colleges is whether you take and perform well in challenging classes, pursue your passions through extracurricular activities, demonstrate leadership skills, and serve your community. You’ll be on the right track if you attend a school where you can excel in these areas, whether it’s a charter school or a traditional public school.