Charter schools are independent, tuition-free, public schools that are granted their authority to operate either by a school district or a state department of education. Charter schools are developed and run by educators, parents, community leaders and educational entrepreneurs. Even though charter schools are public schools, they operate free from many of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. Charter schools have more liberty than public schools, but they also must answer to higher standards of accountability as they are bound by the terms of their charter, which can be considered as similar to a contract. Oftentimes the charter will set forth the school’s mission, academic goals, and accountability procedures. Because they are schools of choice, they answer to the highest type of accountability: consumer demand.
The first charter school was founded in 1992 in Minnesota. Since then many states have enacted laws permitting the establishment of charter schools. Charter school legislation varies greatly from state-to-state. Some states allow charter schools a great deal of freedom and independence, while others are barely distinguishable from traditional public schools.
Charter schools tend to be smaller than other public schools and provide unique and varied curriculum and programs. Charters often emphasize particular fields of study, such as science, creative arts, technology, or languages. Some charters serve students with special needs, such as special education, gifted students, at-risk students or students pursuing a particular trade. Charter schools are uniquely able to respond to the specific needs of a community and a population of students. Thus, charter schools provide a broader range of choice to parents and their children.
Act 22 of 1997 authorized the establishment of charter schools in Pennsylvania. Against the objections of both the school teachers’ unions and other members of the education establishment, this legislation passed with bipartisan support. Nonetheless, if it were not for the relentlessness of Governor Ridge and his administration, there might not be a charter school law today.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education defines charter schools as follows:
“Charter Schools are self-managed public schools that are approved by local school districts. They are created and controlled by parents, teachers, community leaders, and colleges or universities. Charter schools operate free from many educational mandates, except for those concerning nondiscrimination, health and safety and accountability. Charter Schools offer alternatives in education using strategies that may save money and improve student performance.”
Currently, there are 135 charter schools in Pennsylvania enrolling over 50,000 students. In December 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released a comprehensive five-year study that shows that Pennsylvania’s Charter schools have demonstrated a solid record of academic performance, a high level of parent satisfaction, and that Pennsylvania has built a solid foundation for the future of charter schools.
Individuals for groups looking to start charters in Pennsylvania should start at the Department of Education’s Charter School website. Their site provides information on start-up grants to assist in starting a charter school, regulations, and forms.