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Key Facts

The Politics of Institutional Reform

What is a charter school?

A charter school is an independently run public school that is granted greater flexibility in its operations and in return is held accountable for its performance. The “charter” establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment—and a school’s charter can normally be revoked if the contract’s performance standards are not met.  Charter schools can vary a great deal in their design and results. 

Who attends charter schools, and how are they funded?

Charter schools are public schools of choice, meaning that families choose them for their children. Charter schools are not allowed to pick and choose their students. If their applications are oversubscribed, they typically hold a random lottery to decide who is admitted. Like district-run public schools, they receive funding from the district and the state according to the number of students attending (based on average daily attendance, or ADA).

What is the difference between a charter school and a private school?

Charter schools are public schools that have greater freedom from the regulations imposed on district-run schools. Charter schools are accountable for academic results and for upholding the promises made in their charters. They must demonstrate performance in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability. If a charter school does not meet performance goals, it may be closed.

Private schools are not part of government, and, while they are usually subject to certain regulations—which vary by state—they are much more autonomous than charter schools and freer from regulation.  They are self-funded and rely primarily on tuition, grants, donations, and endowments for their budgets. They are also free to select their students according to their own admissions criteria.  Most private schools have a religious affiliation, while charter schools must be nonreligious.