girl with notebookCharter schools are frequently mentioned during debates about education. Our private tutors have heard from many parents who are confused regarding what the difference between a charter school and a private school is.

At its core, the answer to the question is simple – a charter school is an independently-run public school that enters into a performance contract, or charter, with an educational agency within a state. While this answer might satisfy a few, it doesn’t really answer the deeper questions associated with these schools. As a tutoring service, we feel like it’s our responsibility to help educate parents about this topic since it has recently become so prevalent in the news.

Charter schools operate as optional public schools. They operate without cost to the students, but parents must make an active choice to send their children to the charter. The charter, in turn, is freed of some of the more onerous regulations that surround typical public schools. These regulations do not, however, free them from being accountable for student performance, safety, or financial regulation – in those fields, charters are often more accountable than their truly public counterparts.

A charter school can be opened by almost anyone, but the bulk of them are run by those with experience in the field of education and education research. Charter schools must be approved by a state organization and are often under relatively close scrutiny. Charters have to prove that they are meeting their goals on a fairly frequent basis, but are usually exempt from some forms of state testing and from most of the regulations of local school boards.

So, who does a charter actually serve? In most cases, charter schools tend to serve the same populations as most public schools. Charters often occupy a similar space to private schools, working as college preparatory spaces or having specialty-driven curricula, though without the accompanying price tag. Charter schools are funded by taxpayers, though most pay for their own facilities and generally depend on federal funding to deal with start-up costs.

Where these schools tend to stand out is in the area of instruction. Most charters have strict employment criteria and hold their students to higher standards. It is generally assumed that students of charters want to be there, and thus all curricula is designed around students who have an interest in learning. While there’s certainly very little in common from one charter to the next, high expectations do tend to unite most schools.

Charters lie somewhere on the spectrum between public and private schools. Like public schools, they are regulated by state agencies and are free to all students in the area. Like private schools, they have more control over their curricula and over how they teach their students. Parents of students who are looking for unique educational experiences that are not as restricted by red tape are often interested in these schools, as are students who want to push themselves to excel in a way that’s often not possible in local public schools.