Public schools are government-run schools to which students in their catchment area are guaranteed access. Carter schools are independent schools that do not operate under the rules of the state and which parents can choose to send their children to.
While a public school is government owned and run, a charter school is run by either a for-profit or not-for-profit organization that accepts funding from the government for the education of students.
The main differences between public and charter schools are:
- Charter schools have greater operating freedoms than public schools.
- Charter schools are more accountable for student grades (they may be shut down by ‘sponsors’ – i.e governing bodies – if they are seen as failing).
- Parents can choose which charter school to send their child.
Charter schools are often able to experiment much more with teaching strategies and philosophies . They may, for example, have a pedagogical focus like ‘STEM’, ‘Montessori’, or ‘College Preparation’.
But detractors argue that charter schools are often not held to the same standards as public schools by the state; for example, on average, teachers a less qualified (Epple, Romano & Zimmer, 2015). Furthermore, there is concern that charter schools do not carry their weight socially; for example, on average they admit less special needs students than public schools (Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
Charter Schools vs Public Schools: Key Similarities and Differences
The following data is aggregated from a range of academic studies and meta-analyses, namely, the National Bureau of Economics Charter School Survey and the Survey of America’s Charter Schools.
|Characteristics||Traditional Public Schools||Charter Schools|
|Funding||Funded by taxpayer dollars.||Primarily funded by taxpayer dollars, but may also receive private funding. State funding is about 28% less than public schools (Batdorff et al., 2014).|
|Tuition Fee||Free for students.||Free for students.|
|School choice||Students are generally assigned based on where they live and admittance is guaranteed to all students within the catchment area.||Families choose to attend. Charter schools often have an ethos such as ‘STEM’, ‘College Prep’, or ‘Montessori’, which can be desirable to some parents. Admission can be competitive, but in most regions, a lottery is used to select who can attend to prevent selection bias.|
|Admission||Must accept all students within their district boundaries.||Theoretically, should be unbiased in admittance such as by using a lottery system if more students apply than there are available spots. However, some have been found to use strategies to deter low-income, EAL, or special needs students. For example, by not providing information in Spanish, requiring parents to volunteer at the school (generally only a possibility for higher-income families), selectively founding the schools in wealthier suburbs, etc. (Mommandi & Welner, 2018).|
|Curriculum||Curriculum standards set by state and local districts.||Greater freedom in curriculum design, within state guidelines. This allows them to follow alternative teaching styles, such as incorporating Montessori and STEM foci.|
|Accountability||Schools are accountable to the school district and state.||Schools are accountable to their authorizer (which could be a school district, state, or other entity) and must meet the terms of their charter or risk being shut down.|
|Teacher certification||Teachers must be certified.||Certification requirements vary by state; some charter schools may not require teacher certification (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021). Make sure you ask your local charter school about minimum standards for teachers.|
|Special Education Services||Must provide special education services. On average, more special education students attend traditional public schools than charter schools.||Must provide special education services, but the extent and availability can vary, which may deter parents of children with special needs. They tend to carry a lower amoung of special needs students – at 8% in charter schools vs. 11% in state schools (Epple, Romano & Zimmer, 2015).|
|Class Size||Contrary to popular believe, class sizes are about the same on average in public schools as charter schools (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021).||About the same on average as public schools (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021).|
|Governance||Governed by a school board.||Governed by a board of directors or other entity as outlined in their charter.|
Strengths of Charter Schools
In some districts, charter schools out-perform traditional public schools. In other districts, traditional public schools outperform charter schools. It’s a patchwork, which on balance demonstrates that charter schools and traditional public schools need to be examined on an individual basis by parents.
The only compelling meta-analysis data I could find about differences in performance is as follows:
- Urban Test Scores: Charter schools in urban areas tend to get higher student test scores than public schools in the same areas. This is particularly acute for Black, Latino, and low-income students (Cohodes & Parham, 2011).
- College Admittance: Attendance at charter schools leads, on average, to higher college enrollment rates. This is potentially because many charter schools market themselves as college prep schools, which means families who want their children to go to college may disproportionately seek enrollment in such schools (Cohodes & Parham, 2011).
Having examined the data, we can also look at general points about the strengths of charter schools, as put forward by their advocates:
- Innovation and Flexibility: Charter schools have more freedom than traditional public schools to experiment with novel educational approaches (National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2021). However, if this innovation fails, it does a disservice to the students – in some ways, the students are parts of an educational experiment.
- Parental Choice: Charter schools provide parents with an alternative educational choice that is still free. For example, if parents are very much concerned about the disciplinary style, inadequate college preparation, lack of focus on STEM, or teaching style at their local public school, there may be a nearby charter school that would suit them better and may cater to their specific concerns (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2020).
- Accountability: Charter schools are held accountable by their charter agreements, which usually entail specific performance targets. Failure to meet these targets can result in the school’s closure, creating a strong incentive to perform (CREDO, 2013). On the flip side, this may increase stress and anxiety among staff, which may have the reverse impact and decrease performance.
Weaknesses of Charter Schools
- Limited Accessibility: Charter schools often have limited enrollment and may use lottery systems to accept students, making access not guaranteed for all interested families (CREDO, 2013). Many charter schools use tactics like insisting on parent volunteering or placing themselves only in wealthier areas to discourage poorer groups from applying.
- Uneven Quality: While some charter schools perform exceptionally well, others underperform, resulting in inconsistent quality across the sector. It’s important to look at each charter school individually and make an assessment of whether it’s a good fit for your family.
- Limited Services: Some charter schools may not provide the same range of services that state schools do, including services for students with special needs (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010). For example, some schools intentionally do not participate in the free schools lunch program and do not offer English learner programs, deterring poorer and immigrant access (Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
- Financial Pressure: Charter schools often face significant financial pressure and are frequently funded at lower levels than traditional public schools, which may impact the resources available to students (Bifulco & Reback, 2014).
- Increased Social Segregation: Some researchers have found that some charter schools use tactics to discourage marginalized groups from attending, which has exacerbated segregation and may be a disservice to both children and society as a whole (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021; Mommandi & Welner, 2018).
Strengths of Public Schools
- Accessibility and Equality: Public schools serve as the backbone to equality of opportunity in society. They are obligated to accept every child in their district, ensuring accessibility and promoting equality of educational opportunity (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020).
- Broad Curriculum: Public schools typically offer a wide variety of subjects and programs, including arts, foreign language, special education, and advanced placement courses (Hanushek, Peterson, & Woessmann, 2012). Charter schools may zoom-in on selective areas such as STEM, limiting choice overall for students.
- Resources: Public schools often have more resources such as facilities for sports, art, music, and other extracurricular activities (U.S. Department of Education, 2018).
- Certified Teachers: Public schools often require teachers to be state-certified or licensed, meaning they have completed necessary education and training (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014).
Weaknesses of Public Schools
- Inflexibility: Public schools are subject to many regulations and bureaucracy, which can limit flexibility in teaching and administration (Moe, 2001). They tends to be more costly per student as a result.
- Overcrowding: Whereas charter schools can impose a cap on attendance, public schools can suffer from large class sizes and overcrowding because they must accept everyone. This can limit individual and differentiated attention to students (Achilles, 2003). Nevertheless, it’s important to note that on average, class sizes are relatively similar between charter and public schools, so this is a concern only in certain areas (Monarrez, Kisida & Chingos, 2021).
- Lack of Choice: In most cases, students are assigned to public schools based on their residence, which can limit parental choice (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019). This is one of the key reasons parents send their children to charter schools – because the local public school doesn’t suit their specific needs.
Arguments for and Against
Having presented you with what I hope are the objective facts, I’ll not present two argumentative points for and against each school system. Here, I’m playing “devil’s advocate” for both perspectives.
Argument: Charter Schools are Better than Public Schools
If there is a local charter schools that provides a specialist focus, such as STEM or Montessori that you find compelling, it makes sense to see if you can access that school. Charter schools offer you a greater choice as a parent, and it’s worth looking into. Furthermore, if your local public school is underperforming, has systemic behavioral issues, or is overcrowded, it also makes sense to investigate sending your child to a charter school. Charter schools are often able to have stricter disciplinary and academic requirements for students, as there’s always the threat that the children be expelled and sent back to public schools, which must accept them.
Charter schools are accountable to their sponsor and therefore feel the pressure to perform or risk being shut down. This encourages them to work hard, cut the fat, and get results. This cannot be said about public schools to the same extent.
Furthermore, charter schools can innovate and implement different educational models that might be more effective or engaging for students (Buddin & Zimmer, 2005). They act as a petri dish for educational experimentation and improvement.
In fact, the competition that charter schools introduce to the system also puts pressure on nearby public schools to improve their standards. Competition in the education system is good across the board – and all schools remain free at the point of service, delivering the promise of opportunity for all (Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2020).
Counter-Argument: Public Schools are Better than Charter Schools
Public schools often require teachers to be state-certified, ensuring they have met certain standards of competence and knowledge. This is not always the case in charter schools, where teacher qualification requirements can vary (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). Furthermore, special needs and English learner students are welcomed and catered to in all public schools, but not in all charter schools.
Public schools represent a social ideal of we’re all in this together. All people – rich, poor, special needs, or gifted and talented, are all welcome. This comprehensive schooling approach can instill in your children a commitment to community, empathy for others, and sense of belonging to society. Furthermore, grades seem to be about the same regardless of which school a child attends (with some regional exceptions).
I went to a public school, and I must confess, when I met charter school students at college, I was appalled at certain people’s elitism and bias against public school children. I would hate my children to develop that elitist mentality, and it concerns me that some Charter schools’ practices are designed to attract certain types of people and discourage others from applying, which causes a rift in society and makes us all the worse.
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.
Center on Reinventing Public Education. (2020). The Portfolio Strategy. https://www.crpe.org/our-work/portfolio-strategy
CREDO. (2013). National Charter School Study 2013. Stanford University.
Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W. J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education Management Organizations, Charter Schools and the Demographic Stratification of the American School System. EPIC/EPRU. http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/schools-without-diversity
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (2021). The Public Charter Schools Dashboard: A comprehensive data resource from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Achilles, C. M. (2003). How Class Size Makes a Difference: What the Research Says. National Institute for Student Achievement, 2(1), 1-9.
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.
Ingersoll, R. M., Merrill, L., & Stuckey, D. (2014). Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force. CPRE Report. University of Pennsylvania.
Moe, T. M. (2001). Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. Brookings Institution Press.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). School Choice in the United States: 2019. U.S. Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020144.pdf
National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Public School Revenue Sources. U.S. Department of Education. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cma.asp
U.S. Department of Education. (2018). Public School Expenditures. National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cmb.asp
Batdorff, M., Maloney, L., May, J., Speakman, S., Wolf, P., Cheng, A., (2014). Charter School Funding: Inequity Increases. University of Arkansas. 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.
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]