Charter schools and public schools are both forms of taxpayer-funded education in the United States that are free of charge and open to all students regardless of family income. Most traditional public schools have a set curriculum as designed by the district and offer the same types of classes no matter where they are located. Charter schools are mostly charted out of a common goal or a specific focus of education and can vary widely from institution to institution when it comes to the curriculum, schedules, teaching methods, and other factors.

All charter schools are public schools, but not all public schools are charter schools.

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Charter School versus Public School comparison chart
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Introduction In the United States, charter schools are primary or secondary schools that receive public money, but are privately run An elementary or secondary school in the United States supported by public funds and providing free education to children of a community or district.
Education Mandated by a private agency (or individual), but required to meet state standards. Mandated by state curriculum. more often by the Common Core national standards.
Teachers Depends on the school. Some schools require the same certification and qualifications as public schools; others may ask for higher qualifications in a specialized field but relax requirements of core subjects. Teachers must meet all state-mandated requirements and be highly proficient in their subject area (i.e. have at least a BA with a major in their subject). Most teachers have Masters Degrees.
Schedule Very few or no electives as the school itself can be seen as an "elective" as opposed to public schools. Schedule is often a mix of graduation requirements and electives
Purpose To provide an alternative education option for children in the community through either a specialized curriculum or an alternative learning philosophy. To teach children and spend money provided by the community through taxes and bond initiatives
Admission Criteria Everyone can apply; admission and eligibility is determined by a lottery system. School zoning determined by student address.
Technology Depends on the goal of the school. Charter schools can be anywhere from being extremely simplistic to having high end state-of-the-art technology. Depends on the school; can be very modern or relatively outdated.
Accreditation Agency Private board State Board of Education.
Type Public Public
Cost Free Free
Denial of admission Admission is denied only if the student is eliminated by the lottery system, or does not meet attendance or grade requirements once in school. School cannot deny admission to any student within the designated geographical area of the school.
Funding State tax revenue, grants, awards, donations. Federal government, State government, Local government (people's taxes), grants, awards, donations.
Social life Greater camaraderie among all classes; entire school is like a family because of smaller class size. Older kids help the young ones. Fewer opportunities for sports etc., but students are eligible to join teams of the nearest public school. Larger pool of people allows for more social interaction. Opportunities for sports, clubs, community service groups and other after-school activities help broaden students' boundaries. Very good preparation for social pressures of college.
Transportation To be arranged by student. Provided by school within designated area
Administration Private school boards and directors under the guidance of authorizing jurisdictions, which vary by school. School districts and school boards under the guidance of state education departments.
Curriculum Varies by school Common Core standards; State standards
Locations All 50 states and the District of Columbia, EXCEPT Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia. All 50 states and the District of Columbia.

What are Charter Schools?

Like public schools, charter schools usually don't have a selective admission process. They are free for students to attend, and anyone in the school district can apply. If applications exceed the school capacity, students are selected by a lottery system.

Unlike public schools, charter schools are managed by teachers, parents, universities, and other organizations that want to provide alternative educational opportunities for children in their communities. Sometimes these groups are looking for something beyond what their local public schools provide; e.g. they want to employ nontraditional teaching methods or specialize in certain subject areas (say science, art or literature) to foster their students' academic success.

Organizers operate the schools under a charter from their state, local school district, or other jurisdiction—the charter grants the school exemptions from selected regulations that traditional public schools must follow, but it also holds them accountable for student academic success. The school board managing a charter school is a private organization. It is funded from public education budgets but the funds are managed by the private board.

This video by greatschools gives an idea of what charter schools are, and more importantly, bust myths and preconceived notions associated with them:

What are Public Schools?

Public schools are the most common form of education and can be found in nearly every community in every state. Public schools are administered at the local level by school districts and boards, which receive funding from a combination of local and state tax revenues, in addition to grants and other financial awards. Most public schools provide students with a standardized, well-rounded education, in addition to a variety of athletic and other extracurricular opportunities.

Because of the large number of differences among charter schools, it is crucial that interested parents and guardians research which type of school is best for their children.


Charter schools can be created by a group of parents who want alternative education for their children, or any other group in the interest of specialized academics at school level. Groups that wish to create a charter school must apply for a charter from the school district, state, or other agency that governs charter schools in that jurisdiction. The governing agency sets the terms of the charter, including the period of time for which it will be valid before the organizing group must return to seek a charter renewal. The governing agency is responsible for ensuring the charter school meets academic standards and other applicable rules and regulations. Charter schools that fail to meet the terms of their charters, whose students perform poorly on standardized tests, or that do not remain financially solvent can be closed by the governing agency.


Both public schools and charter schools receive funding from their home states — this funding is based on the number of students attending each school. But because state funding does not always cover the entire cost of educating students, many school districts rely on local voters approving increases in their property taxes to help supplement the cost of instruction, school maintenance, and other operations. Many school districts also ask voters for authorization to sell taxpayer-funded bonds to help pay for the cost of constructing or remodeling school facilities.

Charter schools do not have the same ability to seek out property tax increases, and it can be financially prohibitive for them to rely on bonds for capital improvement projects. As a result, many charter schools rely on donations from organizations, businesses, or individuals (parents of students) in order to stay afloat. Despite the Charter School Movement's origins in organized labor, most charter school teachers today are not union members. As a result of a lack of collective bargaining and reduced school revenue, charter school teachers are often paid less than teachers at traditional public schools.


Because charter schools have more curricular flexibility than traditional public schools, they often offer specialized courses or projects tailored specifically for students who are seeking an alternative educational experience. For example, some charter schools have multi-age classrooms so each student can learn according to his or her pace. Others emphasize the development of technical skills that students will utilize in their eventual careers — often this type of curriculum is called STEM, which is short for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. A variant of STEM, called STEAM, also emphasizes art education. There are also charter schools that help prepare students for an eventual career in the U.S. military, or focus on environmental awareness and climate change. Another type of charter school model, expeditionary learning, emphasizes student teamwork and enables students to master concepts while completing comprehensive, hands-on projects.


Students doing schoolwork outside
Students doing schoolwork outside

Proponents of charter schools say that in many cases, their students receive a better-quality education than their public school counterparts. Students at some traditional public schools are disadvantaged by a lack of adequate funding, overcrowded classrooms, uninspired teachers, an unsafe learning environment, or some combination of these and other negative forces. Charter schools, if successful, can provide these students with a more engaging and supportive atmosphere. Students who excel at or are particularly interested in certain subject areas may also benefit from more specialized, challenging education that some charter schools provide. Other students have trouble succeeding in a traditional learning environment, and charter schools can offer alternative teaching methods and class structures to accommodate their preferences.

Critics argue that some charter schools don't hold students to the same academic standards as public schools, generally divert money that would otherwise be used to improve existing public schools, and may use tax dollars to promote religion. In January 2014, the online magazine Slate published an investigative piece on a Texas charter school system with connections to fundamentalist Christian groups that had used taxpayer money to teach creationism and conservative politics to children.

Outside of moral and political spheres, critics also point out that charter schools have limited enrollment, meaning students must apply for admission, and if too many students apply, a lottery is held to determine who gets a seat. Some charter schools require applicants meet certain academic standards in order to attend, but others may encourage struggling students to apply for enrollment. Because public schools are required to accept all students who live in a certain geographical area, while charter schools are not, some critics of charter schools feel this enrollment system is unfair.

A 2013 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) concluded about two-thirds of charter school students perform the same or worse than students in traditional public schools, while about a third of students perform better in a charter school setting. CREDO's director told NPR that African American and Latino students, as well as students whose first language is not English, experienced particularly impressive gains in performance while enrolled at charter schools. However, critics have countered that charter school policies like fines for misbehavior drive students from poor families to drop out. Charter schools also tend to have fewer accommodations for students with disabilities such as autism.

Which One is for My Child?

Does your child show a special penchant towards the arts, or an exceptional interest in science or theater? If there is a charter school in the vicinity that emphasizes learning in your particular sphere of interest, or has the learning philosophy you yourself adhere to, it's worth looking at a charter school. Charter schools are not necessarily gifted schools; they only offer a different kind of curriculum. A charter school is only for you if that specific curriculum and philosophy is exactly what you look for in a school. Quality wise, a public school is just as good as a charter school, as they're both free, and have to meet a district's curriculum requirements.

The animated discussion in this PBS Chicago video will take you one step closer to your decision:


Compulsory public education grew throughout the United States beginning in the mid-19th century, with the first statewide laws passed in Massachusetts in 1852 and in New York in 1853. Since the early 20th century, all U.S. children have been required to receive at least an elementary school education.

The U.S. charter school movement began in the late 1980s — the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union, developed a set of charter school principles in 1988 to encourage school reform. In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation allowing the establishment of charter schools. The next year, City Academy High School opened in St. Paul, Minn., "to meet the growing need for academic programming aimed at young adults seeking a small school with small classes, which would enable them to have productive and meaningful roles within the community," according to the school's website.

By the time the 1999-2000 school year arrived, a total of 300,000 students across the country were enrolled at charter schools. During the 2012-13 school year, nearly 6,000 charter schools with a total of nearly 2.3 million students were operating nationwide.


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