Before delving into charter schools as an educational option, a moment must be taken to honor a Dekalb County, Georgia charter school staff member, Antoinette Tuff. On August 20th, at Ronald E McNair Discovery Learning Academy (named for a NASA astronaut who perished in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion), Antoinette Tuff spared untold children and staff from becoming noted in the same breath as Columbine or Newtown. In this particular charter school, Ms. Tuff singlehandedly stopped a school, focused on community involvement in education, from becoming another hallmark of pain and heartbreak. Thank you, Antoinette Tuff.
Charter schools have greater autonomy than most public schools. Independently operated public schools, they are started by parents, teachers, community organizations, for-profit companies or any combination of the aforementioned. These schools receive tax dollars, but they also raise their own private funds. As public schools, charters cannot charge tuition or have selective admission, however, due to the draw of some charter schools, there may be a lottery in order for a student to gain entrance. There are also provisions written into the policy of many charter schools that allow for the admission of the children of board members or siblings of current students.
According to the Virginia Department of Education, there are five charter schools in Virginia:
- Green Run Collegiate
- Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts
- York River Academy
- The Albemarle Community Public Charter School
- Murray High School
There is only one here in Richmond, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts. Like many charter schools, Patrick Henry seeks to reflect the diversity of the city in which it operates. In addition to a focus on community and family involvement, also a shared tenant of many charter schools, Patrick Henry has explicit foci on science and the arts.
There are a few significant differences between charter schools and conventional public schools, primarily their funding and internal structure. Charter schools have greater autonomy than their conventional counterparts. Although both are publicly funded, charters are allowed to use their own discretion in how to apply many of those funds. For example, if a public school and public charter are both allotted a certain amount of money per child, which includes funding for custodial staff, the charter can shop around for a deal on custodial services while the public school is generally bound to whatever custodial company the district uses. In addition, if a public school and public charter receive that allotment, a significant amount gets eaten up while it funnels through the public school hierarchy. Charter schools have a far more direct line in receiving their funding. They are also able to supplement whatever public funds they are allocated with funds they raise on their own. Inspired Teaching in Washington, D.C. is structured with the founder at the top of the chain of command followed by the board, of which the founder is a member. After the board are the executive director, the principal and the teachers. By contrast in D.C. public schools (a much larger system than RPS or any of the surrounding districts), the chain of command is much more extensive. D.C. is topped by the Chancellor, then a multitude of superintendents who run various clusters (elementary, education campus prek-8), principal, assistant principal, data entry/clerk and a business manager before even reaching the teachers.
A dear friend of mine and her boys are invested in a charter school for their educational experience. She serves as a board member as the charter of her school states that there must be at least a certain percentage of parental representation on the board. The board of her school meets once monthly and holds meetings for about two hours. There are quite a few reasons that she has enrolled her children in a charter school. Every charter school has its own focus and where her children are enrolled there is a great focus on developing teachers. Each student has the benefit of two instructors, a training teacher and a master teacher. The two teachers work in tandem throughout the year with the training teacher gaining the benefit of the experience and guidance of the master teacher. The master teacher, in turn, gains the innovation and new ideas of the training teacher.
The class sizes are small, so students receive a lot of attention and development toward their own personal success. There is deliberate work toward providing real learning, experiential learning, community building, not teaching to the test.
Now even though this mother is elated with her children’s prospects in a charter school environment, as a public school teacher, she would have more to consider in order to teach there. She has a great wealth of experience in the public school system and may not be able to satisfy an equivalent salary at a charter school. Charter schools have a history of not demanding that their teachers are state certified (although this is changing) so the reward for her having met all of the state mandated criteria is nonexistent. In addition, charter school teachers are not afforded membership in teacher unions, so they work at will. This means that their contracts are annually up for review and they don’t achieve tenure. They also work different hours. Although they follow the public school calendar fairly closely, sometimes they work longer hours and have a longer school year calendar.
Outside of the considerations of a teacher seeking employ with a charter school, students have a few considerations that they wouldn’t have in the conventional public school system. Even though charter schools have greater autonomy in implementing their curriculum, they still follow the curricular requirements of the district within which they operate. A charter school can also decide to dismiss a student, although this is not common practice. If a child is causing a major disruption to the educational process and their parent is not participating, as specified by the school, the family could be invited to end their educational experience. Although many charter schools are beginning to require their teachers to meet the same state licensing requirements as public schools, for a while charters used to be safe places for teachers without current teacher licenses to teach. This could be a pro or a con based upon the selection process of each independent charter school.
Charter schools seem to pull the best of both independent school practices and public school accessibility. However, some charter schools don’t make it for the long haul. A charter school has to submit its aims and objectives to the appropriate state board in order to begin. They also have to choose a place to operate and for many charter schools the former home of a public school becomes their home. With this comes the necessity to lease the building from the state. Charter schools are also audited like public schools. Their efficiency and enrollment is assessed, and based upon that assessment their public funding and likelihood of staying open is determined. In addition, just because testing is not the central driving force of academic instruction does not mean it isn’t important. Public school systems often encourage and support the existence of charter schools, because they are able to boost the overall scores of their district and effectively close any testing gaps found in student demographics. With all of that being said, charter schools are also not a “one size fits all” choice. If your child has a penchant for science, a science focused charter may be for you. If your child prefers music and drama, an arts centered charter may be for you. If a college prep program is what you are interested in, there are charter schools that focus on that as well.
Charter schools serve to provide unique educational experiences to a wide range of students and families who may not otherwise have the opportunity, but researching well to see if the aims of the school match the needs and goals of your family is a must. However, when you find a good fit, as with anything, it feels like a perfect fit. One of Richmond’s foremost chanteuses (and often emcee), Sam Reed, is also a super mommy who has a child enrolled at Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts. When asked about her choice of enrolling her child in a charter school she says, “I feel like everyone has the same goal. Everyone is working toward finding the best way for their child to learn. The parent participation is required, but for the most part it seems that the parents who want their children to be involved already are involved in the community. You don’t always find that at the public schools. I also appreciate the fact that it’s not too exclusive. Patrick Henry is open and available to the children in the community and only at the price of a little bit of your time. It’s built on hard work and willing hearts.”