Public Charter Schools vs. Public District Schools: An Overview
Charter schools and district schools both offer free education for students. Each one receives taxpayer funding. However, they operate with different principles and structures.
What is a Charter School?
Charter schools get their name because these types of public schools operate under an authorizer’s “charter” — a legal agreement that gives them more freedom in exchange for more accountability. The charter provides autonomy to innovate curriculum, determine staffing and discipline policies, set daily and annual schedules, design teacher training, and manage school operations. The charter must be renewed every five years by the charter school’s authorizer, which conducts a rigorous review of student achievement, financials, and parent satisfaction at the school. In many states, the law also requires all charters to annually undergo independent financial audits.
What is a District School?
Traditional public schools are managed by Local Education Agencies (LEAs), typically school districts or school boards. District schools adhere to regulations that are often determined by the employment agreements outlined in the teachers’ union contract. District schools have less flexibility for innovation.
5 Key Differences Between Charter Schools and District Schools
Charter and district schools have several distinct differences in how they operate. Here are a few of the key differences that set them apart:
Charter schools and district schools receive public funding from state and local government (ranging from 40% to 50% from each, with roughly 10% of federal funding). Generally, funding is allocated based on student enrollment, student needs, and what is provided by the local government. State governments rely on formulas that distribute education funds among school districts. State funding is also higher in school districts with a large concentration of students who are English-language learners, have low family incomes, or have other special needs. Both district and charter schools benefit from philanthropy and private donations, but district schools often supplement their budgets through parent donations and PTA fundraising. In most states, the amount of charter school funding is determined by the state legislature, but distributed by the local government. Charter school funding can widely vary between states, but is consistently much lower than what district schools receive. On average, charter schools receive about 70 percent of district school funding. Unlike traditional district schools, most charter schools do not receive funding to cover the cost of securing a facility.
2. Enrollment and Admissions
Most district schools enroll only those students who reside in a particular area or “zone,” and certain district schools are selective, requiring tests or other screening processes. Regardless of its quality, children must attend the district school where they live. Charter schools, on the other hand, remain open to any student in the state. Thus charter schools are especially attractive to low-income families who may be unable to afford housing in affluent neighborhoods where district schools tend to be of higher quality. Because charter schools are often in high demand, they must sometimes determine admission by lottery when the demand exceeds the number of available seats.
District schools often follow a standardized curriculum set by the state or school district. Charter schools often have more flexibility in developing curriculum. While they must still meet state education standards, charter schools can tailor their teaching methods or materials to better suit unique educational philosophies or their students’ specific needs.
Like traditional public schools, charter schools are subject to health, safety, and other state and federal regulations. But, typically charter schools face fewer regulations around hiring and employment compared to district schools. That allows them to innovate in several areas, including curriculum design, the length of the school day and year, teacher training and accountability, and school operations. This flexibility enables a focus on student learning. Education is based on what’s best for students.
Staffing models and practices differ greatly between charter and district schools. District schools typically have contracts with a teachers union which dictates many of the rules that charter schools are free of, such as the length of the school day, how teachers are evaluated, and the amount of time teachers can devote to tutoring or additional support for students. Only 11% of charter schools are unionized and in general charter schools have more autonomy in hiring, training, and if necessary disciplining or terminating staff who are not performing up to standards. Charter school principals tend to focus on student learning and are in classrooms daily supporting and coaching teachers; administrative tasks are handled by a separate operations team. District school principals are frequently restricted to a limited number of classroom observations.
Attending Traditional Public School vs. Charter School Pros and Cons
Choosing the right school for your child can be a complex decision. Before pursuing enrollment at an institution, consider the pros and cons of attending either. Charter and district schools each offer unique advantages and disadvantages that can significantly impact your student’s education.
District School Advantages
Convenience: There are far more district schools than charter schools in most cities and states and a limited number of charter schools in rural areas. While there can be stark differences in quality among district schools, they exist in all neighborhoods. Stability: District schools have more funding than charter schools because politicians generally approve funding increases for district schools over charter schools. Standardized curriculum: Traditional public schools often follow a state or district-sponsored curriculum. Charter schools often set their own higher learning standards and develop their own curriculum.
District School Disadvantages
Limited flexibility: Due to teachers’ union rules, public district schools often have less flexibility in providing personalized instruction and additional support to students who need it. Chaotic classrooms: District school behavior policies are generally more lax than those of charter schools, which can disrupt learning. Often one unruly student can disturb the learning of an entire classroom. Teacher shortages: Across the country school districts are plagued by teacher shortages, especially in science, technology, engineering, math, and special education.
Charter School Advantages
Parental involvement: Valuing the importance of the parent partnership, charter schools work to encourage a high level of parental involvement. Safety and structure: Charter schools can set their own discipline policies and prioritize respectful, orderly classrooms that are focused on learning. Rude or disrespectful behavior is not tolerated, and students receive consequences. Effective teachers: Charter schools tend to hire younger teachers who are subject matter experts rather than graduates of schools of education. Charter schools have the freedom to design their teacher training programs, and principals spend most of their day observing, coaching, and supporting teachers in the classroom. In district schools, principals are restricted by teachers union rules to a limited number of classroom observations, often four or fewer per year.
Charter Schools Disadvantages
Limited availability: For political reasons, many states limit the number of charter schools that can open, even when parent demand is high. When a charter school receives more applications than it has seats, a lottery is held to determine admissions. Less public funding: Charter schools generally receive less funding than district schools. Though there are year-to-year fluctuations, a typical charter school receives an average of 70 cents for every dollar a district school receives. Variation in quality: Like district schools, charter schools can vary tremendously in quality and learning outcomes. Parents should look at attendance records, test scores, college acceptance rates, and other data. They should also arrange to visit the school and see how teachers and students interact.
Charter School vs. District School Performance
Performance measurement for charter and traditional public schools is critical to ensure high-quality education for their students. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the main federal law for K-12 public education, aims to ensure all children get a quality education. The law requires that states hold public schools accountable for how students achieve. Typically, both charter schools and district schools look at the following indicators: student academic achievement as measured by standardized tests; student growth and school progress; progress of English language learners; chronic absenteeism; and high school graduation rates and college readiness Charter schools’ performance often receives scrutiny because of their autonomy. Charter authorizers hold these institutions accountable, often through specific academic targets. Charter schools must be reviewed every five years. If they fail to meet these benchmarks, their authorizers may shut them down. In contrast, persistently failing district schools can remain open for decades without repercussions. So, how do charter schools typically compare? The results are varied. Some charter schools excel at student learning, and others don’t. Success Academy students’ test scores compare favorably to their peers in traditional schools in New York City and throughout the state.
How Success Academy Makes a Difference
Many of Success Academy’s scholars thrive in the academic environment because our school caters to their specific needs. A majority of the scholars at Success Academy schools come from traditionally underserved backgrounds. Students who need additional support — including English language learners and students with IEPs — can thrive in our environment thanks to the care and attention of dedicated teachers.
Learn More About Success Academy
Ultimately, your decision to send your student to a charter school or a traditional public school depends on what’s best for your needs. Charter schools can and often do employ unique methods to help engage students in experiential learning and a more comprehensive range of extra-curricular activities than traditional schools. As one of New York’s leading K-12 charter schools, Success Academy encourages our students to reach their highest potential. To learn more about our unique approach to education, sign up for more information. If you’re ready to start your child on the learning journey of a lifetime, enroll today.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do charter schools and public schools differ in terms of funding?
Charter schools and traditional school districts each rely on public funding from their state and local governments, in addition to roughly 10% of federal funding. Most schools’ funding depends on student enrollment, needs, and locally-provided money. State governments often distribute education funds among school districts based on formulas, and provide more money to school districts with higher concentrations of ELL students, low-income families, and other special needs. Both charter and district schools benefit from philanthropy and private donations. District schools, however, supplement budgets with parent donations and PTA funds. In most states, the state legislature determines the amount of charter school funding but allows local governments to distribute those funds. Charter school funding differs widely between states, but it’s often much lower than that of district schools. Charter schools typically receive around 70 percent of district school funds, which does not cover the cost of facilities or student transportation. The organization operating the school must find those funds elsewhere.
What are charter and traditional public school enrollment and admission processes?
To enroll in a charter school, a parent must fill out a simple application, which can be completed online or at the school. If a school receives more applications than the number of seats they have available, offers are decided by lottery. On the other hand, district schools generally admit all students residing within their zone. Enrollment at both school types requires proof of residence, a birth certificate, and immunization records.
If charter schools are freed of regulations that district schools follow, what are the regulations that charter schools must adhere to?
Both charter and district schools must adhere to state and federal education regulations. Charter schools are also deeply transparent to all levels of government. Below is a sampling of just some of the legal reporting requirements to which NYC charters are subject: Below are examples of regulations and reporting for New York charter schools:
Before opening, a charter school must create a highly specific accountability plan for its authorizer that sets forth measurable academic goals — and then the school must report annually on progress against the plan.
Undergo pre-opening and first-year evaluation visits by authorizer, including classroom observations; interviews with parents and staff; site checks for health and safety; and detailed reporting on enrollment, attrition, faculty retention, students with IEPs, ELLs, class size, attendance, and suspensions.
Submit detailed annual reports to authorizer with enrollment, demographic, financial, attrition, facility, and board information.
Prepare annual reports on facilities, including change to location and renovations; these reports must include information on permits, licenses, construction timelines, and budgets.
Provide annual reports on the lottery, including the number of applications received for each school.
Must apply for renewal every five years, a process that includes classroom observations; interviews with parents, staff, and board members; site checks for health, safety, privacy, and compliance; and detailed reporting going back five years on enrollment, demographics (disaggregated by special education status, ELL status, race, economic disadvantage), attrition, faculty qualifications and retention, discipline, school policies and procedures, staff training and assessment materials, financial information, legal compliance, and facilities.
State Education Department
Demonstrate full compliance with all Title I requirements, including payroll records; purchase orders; comprehensive school-wide plans; comprehensive needs assessments; curriculum and professional development information; and internal methods of assessment with city, state, and federal programs.
Submit reports to VESID (office of SED) on school psychologists and discipline practices. Report all violent and disruptive incidents according to VADIR system (all schools in state participate).
Report annual data on school safety and educational climate, including incidents of bullying, discrimination and harassment, according to state’s Dignity for All Students Act. Report on scholar meal status (Free, Reduced, Paid) based on annual family application for meals (“lunch form”).
Monthly reports of scholars who eat school meals.
Annual reports of meal service compliance including staff training, meal components, health inspections, cash receipts, Medicaid/SNAP eligibility, and enrollment vs. meal participation.
Federal and Local
Report on the condition of facilities to USDOE.
Post all relevant labor laws per USDOL.
Report on race and gender of all employees for EEOC.
NYC Department of Education
Reconcile enrollment numbers every two months to ensure compliance with state billing.
Report on status of immunization records for all students.
Collect updated physical examination forms for each student.
Track and report via ATS (student database) each scholar’s housing status (i.e., whether or not homeless).
Report annually on the status of every classroom in a public facility and how it is being used.
Submit weekly reports on carbon copy forms for NYC School Foods and daily payments. DOE requires tracking on which students eat breakfast and lunch.
Monthly certification of active staff in NYC DOE’s system of account access for ATS and SESIS (special education database).
Ensure every school meets the requirements for CPR certification and report the results.
Other NYC Agencies
Subject to audits by the NYC Comptroller.
Report and verify student enrollment for NYC School Construction Authority.
District schools follow state and district-level accountability systems, which include standardized tests and other measures of student success, but even the lowest-performing district schools with shrinking enrollment rarely face closure.