Charter schools are most simply described as a cross between public and private schools. These schools are often created by teacher and parent groups who are dissatisfied with the bureaucracy that surrounds public education. The rules and regulations that shape a public school district, charter proponents argue, can cripple innovation in the schools. The result may be an uninspired and uninspiring educational program that fails to challenge students or meet their true needs.
The first charter school in the United States opened in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1993. As of the beginning of the school year in September 2001 there were some 2,400 charter schools operating in 34 states and the District of Columbia, serving 576,000 students. (Three additional states, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Wyoming, have charter school laws on the books but had not established charter schools by 2001.)
Typically, a charter school will be proposed by a group consisting of teachers, parents, and community leaders. Local and state organizations provide funding for charter schools, approve their programs, and monitor their quality. Charter schools are “public” in this sense, but unlike traditional public schools they are freed from traditional regulation. In general, the number of students per charter school is lower than in a traditional school, and there are also more teachers per pupil.
Proponents of charter schools claim that the structure not only enhances autonomy from oppressive bureaucracy but also increases accountability. Because they are monitored carefully, they have little room to do poorly. If they fail to accomplish their goal, they are closed. Moreover, because parents actively choose to send their children to charter schools, the school administrators know that if they fail to provide what they promise, parents and students will go elsewhere.
Opponents of charter schools say that they are merely private schools cloaked in a public-school mantle, allowing like-minded individuals to opt out of the public school system at the expense of those schools. This makes it even harder, they maintain, for public schools to excel. proponents counter that charter schools create a healthy competition that forces school districts to offer more and better services to students in their traditional schools.