While charter schools and private schools share certain similarities—such as providing alternatives to traditional public schools—they fundamentally differ in several key areas.
The most important difference is that charter schools are generally free for students, whereas private schools require students to pay (or otherwise receive non-government funding) in order to attend.
The main similarity is that charter and private schools are not operated by the state. Both types of schools are operated by for-profit or not-for profit entities (which differentiates them both from traditional public schools).
Charter Schools vs Private Schools: Similarities and Differences
Charter schools and private schools share some similarities, yet they also have fundamental differences that make them distinct types of educational institutions.
Both charter and private schools offer an alternative to traditional public schools, allowing families to select an environment that they believe best suits their child’s educational needs (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).
Both private and charter schools often have more freedom than public schools to experiment with novel teaching methods and curriculum designs (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2021; Jeynes, 2002). They may emphasize particular pedagogical philosophies or themes, such as STEM, Montessori, or college preparation
These schools often foster a unique school culture and ethos that may appeal to certain families (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2020).
However, there are also key differences between charter schools and private schools.
Most notably, while charter schools are publicly funded, private schools rely primarily on tuition fees and private donations (Batdorff et al., 2014; U.S. Department of Education, 2018). This means that charter schools are tuition-free and therefore more accessible to a wider range of families than private schools, which can be prohibitively expensive for many.
Admission practices also differ.Charter schools are theoretically unbiased in their admissions process, often resorting to a lottery system when applications exceed available spots (Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
On the other hand, parents need to pitch themselves to private schools, who will pick-and-choose which families to accept into the school. They may examine academic records, interviews, and entrance exams to see who can be accepted(Moe, 2001).
This means private schools are more exclusive than charter schools.
In terms of accountability, charter schools are accountable to their authorizer and must meet the terms of their charter or risk being shut down (CREDO, 2013). In contrast, private schools are monitored by private accreditation organizations but are not required to meet state standards or take state assessments (U.S. Department of Education, 2018).
|Charter Schools||Private Schools|
|Funding||Primarily funded by taxpayer dollars and may also receive private funding. They receive about 28% less state funding than public schools.||Funded through tuition fees, private grants, and donations. Not funded by taxpayer dollars.|
|Tuition Fee||Free for students.||Mostly require tuition, but some offer scholarships or sliding scale fees.|
|School Choice||Families can choose to attend, but admission can be based on a lottery. Schools often have a focus like ‘STEM’, ‘College Prep’, or ‘Montessori’.||Families can choose to attend, but admission can be competitive. Schools can have a variety of educational focuses and religious affiliations.|
|Admission||Should be unbiased, often using a lottery system if applications exceed spots. However, some schools may use tricks and barriers to deter certain students.||Admission criteria vary widely and may include academic records, interviews, and entrance exams. They can select students based on various factors.|
|Curriculum||Greater freedom in curriculum design than traditional public schools, allowing for alternative teaching styles.||Greater freedom in curriculum design than public schools. Can align with various pedagogical models and religious teachings.|
|Accountability||Held accountable to their authorizer and must meet the terms of their charter or risk being shut down.||Private accreditation organizations monitor school quality, but they are not required to meet state standards or take state assessments.|
|Teacher Certification||Certification requirements vary by state; some schools may not require teacher certification.||Certification requirements vary by school. Some private schools may not require teacher certification.|
|Special Education Services||Must provide special education services, but extent and availability can vary.||Private schools are not required by law to provide special education services.|
|Class Size||Class sizes are about the same on average as public schools.||Class sizes vary, but private schools often promote small class sizes as a key advantage.|
|Governance||Governed by a board of directors or other entity as outlined in their charter.||Often governed by a board of trustees. In religious schools, the board may be connected to a church or religious organization.|
Charter School Pros and Cons
Charter schools offer a unique blend of advantages and drawbacks that potential parents and students should carefully consider.
Pros of Charter Schools
- Innovation and Flexibility: Charter schools enjoy greater freedom to experiment with new educational approaches compared to traditional public schools (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2021). This can lead to unique curricular offerings and pedagogical techniques, such as Montessori or STEM-focused programs.
- Parental Choice: Charter schools provide an alternative to traditional public education that still comes at no cost to the families. They often offer a different educational focus that may align more closely with a family’s values or aspirations for their children (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2020).
- Accountability: Charter schools are accountable to their charter agreements, which usually include specific performance targets. If these targets aren’t met, the school risks closure, incentivizing high performance (CREDO, 2013).
- Improved Urban Test Scores and College Admission: Research shows that charter schools in urban areas often outperform public schools, especially for Black, Latino, and low-income students (Cohodes & Parham, 2011). Additionally, charter schools tend to have higher college enrollment rates, potentially because many market themselves as college preparatory institutions (Cohodes & Parham, 2011).
Cons of Charter Schools
- Limited Accessibility: Charter schools may have limited enrollment capacity, and with demand often exceeding supply, lotteries are frequently used to determine admissions. Additionally, certain schools have been accused of using tactics to discourage lower-income, EAL, or special needs students from applying (CREDO, 2013; Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
- Uneven Quality: The quality of charter schools can be inconsistent, with some schools outperforming traditional public schools, while others underperform (Buddin & Zimmer, 2005).
- Limited Services: Some charter schools may not offer the same range of services that public schools do, including programs for students with special needs or English learner programs (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010).
- Financial Pressure: Due to lower levels of funding compared to traditional public schools, charter schools often face significant financial pressures which can affect resources available to students (Bifulco & Reback, 2014).
- Increased Social Segregation: There is evidence that some charter schools contribute to increased segregation, potentially disadvantaging marginalized groups and perpetuating social inequality (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021; Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
Private School Pros and Cons
Private schools offer a distinct set of advantages and disadvantages, separate from those of charter schools. These can significantly influence the educational experience of students.
Pros of Private Schools
- Academic Excellence: Private schools often position themselves in the educational marketplace as institutions of academic excellence. Families pay a lot of money to get their children into these schools, so parents are usually on the same page as the schools here – pushing academic excellence hard (Jeynes, 2002). In charter and public schools, you may find there is a greater mix of families, some of whom will have less of an emphasis on academics for their children.
- Smaller Class Sizes: Private schools typically promote themselves as having lower student-to-teacher ratios, which can facilitate more personalized instruction and greater academic success (Biddle & Berliner, 2002).
- Extracurricular Activities: Private schools often have extensive extracurricular programs, which can enrich students’ educational experiences and aid in their personal development (Lee, 2018). However, of course, parents will be paying a lot of money for their children to partake!
Cons of Private Schools
- Cost: Unlike public or charter schools, private schools charge tuition, which can be prohibitively expensive for many families (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). This cost means only wealthy people can access them, and of those wealthy people, they are people willing to spend a lot of money on their children’s education, which sets high expectations for the children.
- Access and Diversity: Private schools can be selective in their admissions, leading to a lack of diversity and potential reinforcement of socioeconomic disparities (Saporito & Sohoni, 2007). Children in these schools may get less exposure to working and middle-class people and may even develop a sense of superiority or elitism over others, causing classism in society.
- Less Regulation: Although this allows for flexibility, it can also lead to inconsistencies in curriculum, teacher qualifications, and overall school quality (Hanushek, Woessmann, Peterson, 2012).
- Limited Special Education Services: Some private schools may not offer the same level of special education services as public schools, limiting options for students with special needs (McLaughlin, 2018).
Are Private Schools Better than Charter Schools?
The debate between private schools and charter schools is a complex one, filled with many variables to consider. Let’s explore some perspectives on this issue.
Argument 1: The Case for Private Schools
Many people will argue that private schools offer an unmatched quality of education. This doesn’t just include high expectations for teaching and learning excellence, but also an expectation that students behave very well or else be expelled.
These schools’ independent status allows them to craft their own curriculum (within legal parameters set by the state), hire experienced teachers at competitive wages, and secure smaller class sizes, all of which contribute to a more personalized learning experience.
Additionally, private schools often have the resources – paid for by parents – to offer a wide range of extracurricular activities, arts programs, and sports, facilitating a well-rounded education for students.
Parents who care deeply about their children’s education and have the resources to gain admittance will be buying their children a significant leg-up by getting them into these schools.
Argument 2: Private Schools and Elite Academics
There are academic advantages of private schools. Private schools can create the right environments for achieving higher academic outcomes and position students well for elite college admission.
Also, many private schools boast impressive matriculation rates to top-tier universities, which can pave the way for a student’s future success.
This may be because having attended a private school looks good on a college application.
Additionally, because these schools are fee-based, they often have access to extensive resources, cutting-edge technology, and facilities that may not be readily available in other types of schools, while also enabling children to go to a school where they know misbehavers and troublemakers can be kicked out, meaning more focus on academics overall.
Argument 3: The Case for Charter Schools
Charter schools offer unique advantages, especially for families who can’t quite afford private education but still care deeply about their children’s academics.
Charter schools represent an intersection between public and private schools. While they operate with more freedom than traditional public schools, they are still publicly funded and therefore accessible to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
This provides opportunities for families of all backgrounds.
Moreover, the increased accountability of charter schools drives a focus on achieving strong academic outcomes while tracking with the government standards of education. The mix of flexibility and accessibility of charter schools makes them an appealing option.
Argument 4: Charter Schools and Educational Equity
Charter schools offer both choice and accessibility. They are revolutionizing education for families who previously had limited options.
They provide an opportunity for a quality education that’s free, which is particularly beneficial for low-income families who still greatly value their children’s education.
Furthermore, charter schools often have specific educational themes or approaches. This allows parents to choose a school that aligns with their values, such as if they highly value STEM or a Montessori education approach.
Despite potential limitations in resources compared to private schools, many charter schools demonstrate outstanding performance and commitment to their students’ success.
Are Charter Schools Public Schools?
For a detailed answer, read: Charter Schools vs Public Schools
Charter schools, despite being run by either for-profit or non-profit organizations, are still considered public schools because they have an obligation to be free and not discriminate during the application process.
We usually differentiate charter schools from government-run schools by the terms ‘TPS’ (traditional public schools) vs ‘Charter Schools’.
Similarities between traditional public schools and charter schools include the fact that they’re both free, are not allowed to discriminate during the admissions process, and are accountable to government bodies to maintain standards.
However, charter schools also have greater freedoms than public schools to use experimental and innovative teaching and discipline methods, specialize in the focus (e.g. STEM-focused charter schools), and set their own rules around expulsion.
Whereas a student will be automatically accepted into their local public school, parents can choose to apply to any charter school. If too many people apply, usually a lottery takes place to decide who gets into the school and who is denied.
In essence, while charter schools operate with greater freedom than traditional public schools, they remain public schools, being publicly funded and accountable to public entities. They offer a distinct approach to education that blends characteristics of both public and private institutions, providing a unique choice for parents and students within the public school system.
|Traditional Public Schools||Charter Schools||Private Schools|
|Funding model||Entirely government funded||Government funded, may have outside funding sources.||Generally not government funded in the USA, may receive some grants|
|Cost of attendance||Free to attend||Free to attend||Costly to attend|
|Operator||Government||For-profit or not-for-profit entity||For-profit or not-for-profit entity|
|School choice||Anyone in catchment area has right to attend.||Parents can choose to apply. Charter schools usually select applicants based on a lottery system.||Parents can choose to apply. Schools can choose to accept or deny applicants, selecting the ‘most desirable’ students.|
|Religious affiliation||Non-religious||Non-religious||Can be religious|
|Educational focus||Comprehensive range of subjects and mainstream teaching methods.||Can be specialist, e.g. STEM-focused school, Montessori school, College preparation.||Can be specialist, e.g. STEM-focused school, Montessori school, College preparation.|
The choice between private and charter schools often comes down to personal circumstances (i.e. what can you afford?), values, and the specific options available in your area. Each type of school has its strengths, and the ‘better’ choice will depend on what best meets the needs of the individual student and their family.
Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J., Speakman, S., Wolf, P., Cheng, A., (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Increases. University of Arkansas.
Bauch, P. A., & Goldring, E. B. (1995). Parent involvement and school responsiveness: Facilitating the home–school connection in schools of choice. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 17(1), 1–21.
Biddle, B., & Berliner, D. (2002). Small class size and its effects. Educational Leadership, 59(5), 12-23.
Bifulco, R., & Reback, R. (2014). Fiscal Impacts of Charter Schools: Lessons from New York. Education Finance and Policy, 9(1), 86-107.
Buddin, R., & Zimmer, R. (2005). Student Achievement in Charter Schools: A Complex Picture. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 24(2), 351-371.
Cohodes, S., & Parham, D. (2011). The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 34(1), 2-26.
CREDO. (2013). National Charter School Study 2013. Stanford University.
Hanushek, E. A., Peterson, P. E., & Woessmann, L. (2012). Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance. Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard.
Jeynes, W. H. (2002). A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Attending Private Schools and Achievement: A Multifaceted Perspective. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 68–76.
Lee, V. E. (2018). Extracurricular Activities in High School and Their Effects on Students’ Postsecondary Educational Aspirations. Children and Youth Services Review, 88, 241-249.
McLaughlin, M. (2018). Special Education in Private Schools: A Brief History. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 22(3), 314-326.
Moe, T. M. (2001). Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Brookings Institution Press.
Mommandi, W., & Welner, K. (2018). Shaping charter enrollment and access. In I. Rotberg, & J. Glazer (Eds.) Choosing charters: Better schools or more segregation (pp. 61-81). Los Angeles: Teachers College Press.
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2021). The Public Charter Schools Dashboard: A comprehensive data resource from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). School Choice in the United States: 2019. U.S. Department of Education.
Saporito, S., & Sohoni, D. (2007). Mapping Educational Inequality: Concentrations of Poverty among Poor and Minority Students in Public Schools. Social Forces, 85(3), 1227-1253.
U.S. Department of Education. (2018). Public School Expenditures. National Center for Education Statistics.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]