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Charter Schools – A Primer
By Arthur A. Katz, JD


Arthur KatzDuring the past several years, we have been hearing more and more about charter schools.  The controversy over the efficacy and need for charter schools continues unabated.   However, for many of us, what charter schools are remain a mystery.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, “One of the fastest-growing areas of school reform is the creation of public schools through the chartering process.  Since they first appeared in the early 1990s, many charter schools have provided students with additional meaningful opportunities to receive a high-quality education. . . . The U.S. Department of Education is committed to supporting the establishment of high-quality public charter schools from which all students can benefit.”

So, what is a charter school?

First, and foremost, a charter school is a public school which, however, operates independently from the local public school system.  It is not controlled by the local school district or, in New York City, the NYC Department of Education.  It is called a “charter” school because it is granted a limited charter by the appropriate state authority or school district (as provided in the law and regulations promulgated by the governing authority) which is based upon a contract with its governing authority.  In its contract (or charter), the charter school commits to meeting specific academic goals set by, or agreed with, the governing authority, including obtaining levels of student achievement.  The school’s charter normally will include a description of how student performance will be measured pursuant to State assessments required of other public schools and pursuant to any other assessments mutually agreeable to the authorized public chartering agency and the charter school.  Once its charter is granted, if the charter school thereafter fails to meet its commitments, then its contract may be terminated.

Charter schools are subject to the same Federal and State audit requirements as other elementary and secondary schools, must operate in accordance with State law and are required to meet all applicable Federal, State and local health and safety requirements.

A charter school operates according to the terms of its charter and makes its own decisions about how to best achieve its stated goals.  Thus, a charter school may operate without the traditional school district bureaucracy and regulations that sometimes inhibit the flexible management and operation of public schools, and may set its own academic program and policies (within certain mandated guidelines), set its own educational goals, hire its own staff, provide for a longer school day and establish guides for acceptable student behavior and dress.

The majority of charter schools are not unionized.  Unless the charter school has agreed to abide by a teachers’ union contract, the charter school does not need to abide with union contract regulations or pay union mandated wages.  As a result, most charter schools do not inherit a legacy of existing teacher protection rules and guidelines that unions have negotiated with the local school systems.

Charter schools usually are considered to be more flexible and innovative than the local public schools.  Normally, the freedom of the charter school to operate and its required accountability to achieve its contractual goals better allows a charter school to respond to the community’s needs and permits the charter school to use more creativity and different approaches to achieve its goals.  However, there is a price for such autonomy, which is increased accountability.  Moreover, failure to meet the results mandated in its charter normally will result in a non-renewal of the charter.  Thus, charter schools usually need to show performance superior to that of the public schools within their area in order to justify their continued existence.

Irrespective of the freedom granted to charter schools, they still must operate in accordance with Federal law.  Charter schools are required to be non-sectarian in their programs, admission policies, employment practices and all of its operations.  Further, a charter school should not be affiliated with a sectarian school or religious institution.  Charter schools (like other public schools) must comply with the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin), title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (which prohibits sexual discrimination in the education process), section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1990 (which protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability), and other similar federal anti-discrimination laws.

Charter schools are tuition free and are “schools of choice”, in that parents have the right to choose to send their children to a charter school.  A charter school cannot select its students based on previous grades, test scores, writing samples, interviews or any other indication of academic ability.  Admission is on a first-come, first-served basis.  If there are too many applicants, the charter school is required to hold a random lottery, which in New York is governed by State law and regulations.  However, in New York, charter schools are required to offer a lottery preference to returning students, to siblings of enrolled students and to students who reside in the local community school district.  Additionally, and depending on the charter school, preferences may be offered for certain categories of “at-risk” students, such as students who still are learning the English language, students from low-income families and students who have not scored at the proficient level on state tests.

In New York City, the demand for charter schools is growing and has outpaced the number of available seats.  At the start of the 2014/15 school year, there were 197 charter schools in New York City which enrolled an aggregate of 83,200 students.  However, there were another 49,700 students who were waitlisted for charter schools.  The majority of the NYC charter schools are at the elementary school level and the demographics for the 2013/14 school year reflected that 80% of the enrolled students were from economically disadvantaged households and that 58% of the students were African-American and 36% were Latino.  However, it is noted that the makeup of the population of these schools primarily are based on the neighborhoods in which the schools are established. #



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