How to Make the Charter School Choice

Charter schools are a popular choice for parents -- but are they right for your child?

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They've been heartily praised and roundly denounced, but what exactly are charter schools? Put simply, these open-enrollment public schools have the freedom to follow their own philosophy -- say, that single-sex classrooms or school uniforms work best -- and to offer special enrichment classes (for instance, in environmental studies or graphic arts). In exchange, they are held accountable for producing quantifiable student learning. Some, like KIPP, a national network of locally run charter schools that is dedicated to preparing students in underserved communities for college, have achieved noteworthy success: It now serves 60,000 students in 20 states and boasts 6,000 alumni now in college.

Charter programs may start as early as Pre-K and can go through high school. Sending your kid to one is optional, and admission is far from guaranteed. While some have a rigorous application process, the vast majority of admissions are done by lottery. The "charter" refers to the contract each school has with the state, outlining its mission. "Each school must show that the goals are being met or its charter is revoked after three to five years," says William Sharp, Psya.D., professor of psychology and human development at Wheelock College, in Boston, and a charter-school consultant. That includes strong test scores, since charter-school students also take the Common Core assessments (assuming their state participates).

Charter schools do have their downsides. On average, they receive 30 percent less state funding per pupil than public ones, so they tend to rely on private and corporate contributions. Some also have high operating costs. One study found that Michigan charter schools on average spend nearly $800 more per pupil per year on administrative expenses than the state's public schools do -- and about $1,100 less on instruction. Then there's the question of whether they're truly superior. Charter officials tend to compare students' math and reading scores with those of nearby schools, without accounting for the fact that its pupils tend to be more advanced to start with (after all, they and their families were motivated enough to school-shop).

Even if you're interested in a charter school, you might not find one near you. There are roughly 6,000 of them nationwide -- four times as many as 15 years ago, according to Mukta Pandit, project director of the National Charter School Resource Center. However, that figure is dwarfed by the roughly 99,000 public schools.

If you do have a charter option, plan ahead. Check out the website of the school you're interested in, and mark down the lottery deadline. Visit the school and get familiar with its philosophy and curriculum, advises Karen Thomas, Ed.D., cofounder of the Marion P. Thomas Charter School, in Newark, New Jersey. Inquire about staff turnover and whether any of the teachers' own children attend it. "If they do, that's a strong indication that they personally believe in what the school is doing," says Dr. Thomas.

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      Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.