Charter Schools: Are They Better Than Regular Public Schools?

As NBC News' Education Nation 2012 begins, iVoice Lela Davidson shares her thoughts on charter schools, believing that, at their best, they provide options for parents to help their children succeed.

As the United States slips further down the international academic rankings, we must innovate. Charter schools can help. Here's how.

First, what exactly is a charter school?

Simply put, a charter school is a privately managed public school. Charter schools are allowed to operate by a contract—or charter—with the state. According to the Center for Education Reform, “a good charter law provides automatic exemptions from most of the school district’s laws and regulations." This doesn’t mean charter schools can violate fundamental laws concerning civil rights, but they have more freedom to innovate in ways that traditional public schools cannot.

As public schools, charter schools operate at no cost to parents and are entitled to receive the same amount of funds per student from the state as all other conventional public schools. However, they do not receive local funding such as from bond issuances and property taxes. Even though charter schools operate under waivers from many traditional school mandates, they are held accountable for the same results as other public schools. If a charter school’s students do not perform, the school’s charter will not be renewed.

Charter Success

Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, Arkansas is a college preparatory academy that is recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of the finest high schools in the nation. Not bad for a public school that operates on approximately 60% of the funding of its traditional public school counterparts. “My hope is that over a period of time charter schools will be more accepted, that more individuals will open them up with a focus to serve a specific population,” says the school’s founder, Martin Schoppmeyer. He holds a PhD in Educational Administration and was working at the University of Arkansas when he realized how many college students were not prepared to do university level work.

Schoppmeyer created Haas Hall as an environment of rigorous academics and high expectations to prepare students for elite universities. That was eight years ago, with seventeen students in a converted dairy barn. Today the school serves 320 students (including my son) in a building that once housed an Italian restaurant and a gym.

Once Size Does Not Fit All

Because funding is provided by the state, any Arkansas resident can attend Haas Hall, but there are obstacles, such as transportation, a high GPA standard, and zero tolerance for misbehavior. It’s not for everyone. And that’s the point.

“Other countries don’t educate everybody the same way,” says Schoppmeyer. He adds that not all students want a college degree, and they should be provided other opportunities. “I remember when technical schools were really big, and they’re not anymore.”

Charter schools are often touted as a solution in urban areas, as depicted in the documentary "Waiting for Superman," but Schoppmeyer says they can be set up to address any student need. “The intent of charter schools has never been just to serve underserved students. The intent of a charter school is to try to promote a new kind of educational endeavor and an opportunity for new programs and methodologies to be tried out.”

But Are Charter Schools Really Better than Traditional Schools?

Opponents argue that charter schools do not always improve students’ academic results, exclude segments of the population, and rob the traditional public school system of needed funding. The largest and most powerful labor union in the country, the National Education Association, directly addresses the idea of choice in the charter school debate in its position on charter schools: “…a charter should be granted only if the proposed charter school intends to offer students an educational experience that is qualitatively different from what is available to them in mainstream public schools, and not simply to provide a 'choice' for parents who may be dissatisfied with the education that their children are receiving in mainstream public schools.”

For our family, this particular charter school provides a qualitative difference for my son, who was identified early on as “gifted and talented” yet still coasted through his traditional education unchallenged. I’m grateful we have a choice, and I wish more families had more choices, no matter what their needs.

Lela Davidson, an iVoice on iVillage, is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA. She blogs about marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 at After the Bubbly and tweets at @leladavidson.

WATCH: Lela's participation in this report - Can Women Have It All? Why Are We Still Asking That Question?


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