What is a Charter School?

Erica Olsen

Discussions of education reform often include the term "charter schools," but misconceptions and misunderstandings often accompany this term. Simply put, a charter school is a publicly-funded entity operating free of many of the regulations under which traditional public schools operate. Specifically, they are legally and fiscally autonomous educational entities operating within the public school system under charters or contracts. The charters are negotiated between organizers and sponsors. The organizers may be teachers, parents, or others from the public or private sectors. The sponsors may be local school boards, state school boards, or other public authorities such as universities. The concept is aimed at producing increased responsiveness to the demands of parents, students and teachers, and greater opportunities for innovation in school management and education. Twenty-six states as well as Washington D.C. have passed varying types of charter school legislation. Nevada Senate Bill 220 reintroduces potential charter school legislation for our state. The following is a list of the main components of an ideal charter school model compared to S.B. 220 as well as case studies from California and Arizona.

The Charter Schools Model

This nine-component model is what charter school advocates might call the "ideal type" of charter school law. The model is outlined below with an analysis of the Nevada bill as it pertains to each component.

  1. The actors permitted to organize a charter school. Anyone from a group of teachers to community leaders may start a charter school. The Nevada bill allows teachers, parents, other citizens, non-profit organizations and businesses to be operators, also called the governing body.
  2. The sponsoring body. The model specifies that more than one type of public authority should be eligible to sponsor a charter school. The Nevada bill allows district school boards or the University Board of Regents to be sponsoring bodies.
  3. The legal status. Charter schools are non-sectarian public schools that exist independent of a school district. Such schools are legally and fiscally autonomous entities, free to make their own decisions regarding school operations, including matters such as curriculum, personnel and contracting for services. The Nevada bill allows state funding, if approved, to go directly to the charter school and bypass the district, allowing the governing body to control finances. However, if the school receives state money, the governing body is required to do an annual fiscal audit for the Department of Education and the legislature. On the curriculum side, the bill only requires charter schools to adhere to core curriculum set by the State Board of Education. Other class requirements are left up to the governing body.
  4. Regulations. Charter schools receive waivers from most state and local school regulations. Exceptions are regulations regarding health and safety, civil rights, fiscal accountability, performance requirements and other restrictions specified in the charter. The Nevada bill exempts these schools from state and local regulations except those related to "health, safety, discrimination, civil rights and the Public Employee’s Retirement System."
  5. Accountability arrangements. The authority for decision-making and accountability is in the hands of the school itself rather than the school district. Parents and the sponsoring public authority hold the charter school accountable for student outcomes. Failure to attract sufficient students and teachers, or a failure to meet the provisions of the charter result in the revocation of the charter. The Nevada bill states the "governing body of the charter school shall make annual progress reports to its sponsor, the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Speaker of the Assembly." The progress reports shall include progress toward goals in the charter, a financial statement and salaries and benefits of employees.
  6. Admissions rules. Charter schools may not charge tuition and their admission policies must be nondiscriminatory. They are also schools of choice and students are not required to attend such schools. The Nevada bill encompasses these guidelines and allows the school to give priority enrollment to students residing in the geographic area, a sibling of a pupil already enrolled or children of a charter school employee. The Nevada bill also requires enrollment must reflect at least 10 percent of the make up of the population surrounding the school’s geographic area.
  7. Funding specifications. A charter school is to receive the full public funding allotment associated with its student enrollment and should be able to apply for federal and state grants to help with start-up costs. The Nevada bill states "100 percent of the per-pupil funding automatically follows students enrolled in charter schools." The school is also allowed to accept gifts, grants, donations and bequests from public and private sources.
  8. Teachers. Teachers may work as employees or they may also serve as managers of the school. Teachers previously employed by a school district retain leave protections such as seniority and retirement benefits if they choose to return to the district within a specified time period. The Nevada bill allows teacher benefit retention if the governing body of the charter school agrees to the contract. The bill does require teachers to be licensed by the state and allows employees to have the option to bargain collectively, as part of the existing district unit or as a separate unit. The teacher also has the option to negotiate his or her own salary separately.
  9. Number of charter schools. The model designates that a substantial number of schools be permitted within a state. The Nevada bill allows 25 charter schools, with no more than 12 in any one district. After four years, the number will be unlimited.

S.B. 220 as amended is quite similar to the ideal model as outlined above, which was derived from the works of school reform researchers Ted Kolderie, Joe Nathan, Louann Bierlein and Lori Mulholland. S.B. 220 also includes some provisions not listed above. The law requires documented support from a majority of teachers in a school wishing to convert to a charter school. Also, the State Board of Education must publish a list of vacant and unused buildings owned by any government entity that may be suitable for charter school use.

Permissive or Restrictive Laws

The majority of charter school states have relatively restrictive charter school laws, which limit the full development of this concept. States enjoying success from charter schools have mostly permissive laws, allowing the following important provisions:

  • more than one public authority to sponsor schools;
  • conversions of existing schools as well as new charter schools;
  • independence from the local school district;
  • waivers of most state and local school regulations;
  • a substantial or unlimited number of charter schools.

According to these guidelines, the Nevada bill meets, for the most part, all five provisions allowing for very permissive charter schools in the state.

California’s Five-Year Experience

California enacted a charter school law in 1992 which permitted up to 100 schools to open. The 100th was just approved in November. The State Board of Education has since approved schools beyond the cap. Currently about 90 charter schools are operating under the leadership of a wide variety of teachers, parents and communities. Many success stories are already on record. One example is The Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Los Angeles. It realized a $1.2 million surplus in its first year as a charter school. During the 1993-94 school year, it maintained a 99 percent attendance rate, reduced class sizes, hired new teachers and added a computer lab and a teacher resource center. Incidentally, one of California’s charter schools is actually located in Nevada on tribal land near Minden.

Arizona’s Charter Schools

In July 1994, Arizona enacted one of the most far-reaching charter school laws to date. Within a year, the Board of Education and the State Board for Charter Schools (established by the law as a separate charter-granting body) had approved nearly 50 applications. Forty-six schools opened in fall, 1995, with total enrollment of more than 7,000 children. Further, the Arizona Legislature appropriated $1 million to assist charter schools with start up costs, providing about $20,000 to each. However because the program took off so quickly, the state is having problems keeping the charter schools accountable.

Due to S.B. 220, Nevada has the chance to follow California’s and Arizona’s lead and be a part of bold education reform to dramatically raise the equality of state education.

(California and Arizona information was provided by the Center for Education Reform.)

Erica Olsen is a Research Analyst at NPRI.