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What’s Up With Charter Schools?

By Holly Case

So your neighborhood public school has overcrowded classes, low academic standards and a social environment that would make the boys from Lord of the Flies cower in fear. The private schools are out of your price range or don’t work for religious reasons. And you don’t think homeschooling is a good fit for your family, either. When all the traditional educational options seem like a bad fit, what’s a parent to do? Charter schools may offer just the alternative you’re seeking.

Charter schools are publicly funded and are usually sponsored by a university or board of education. They tend to be controversial because despite the public funding, they do not have to operate according to the same standards as traditional public schools. And because not every charter is the same, there are some key things to keep in mind when considering this option.

Charter schools vary widely
Each charter school has its own mission and goals. Some offer a more advanced academic program for advanced or gifted students. Some try to recapture the school environment of yesteryear by incorporating value lessons in the curriculum or requiring that students wear uniforms. Some try to reach at-risk kids. And still others are experimenting with bold new educational ideas.

Performance varies widely, too
Some charters are verifiable success stories, with many or most students meeting or exceeding the standards. But unlike traditional public schools, charter schools operate with relative autonomy. That means that problems can go unchecked for a long time. Some of the complaints about charters range from inadequate record-keeping to poor performance on tests to the truly criminal, in which corrupt administrators have spent funding inappropriately. Any school is unlikely to tell you about black marks on their record, so it’s wise to do some detective work.

What to watch for
Meet with the curriculum director or principal of the school, and come prepared with concerns. What do they have to offer, and how do they measure their success? Ask them which kinds of students thrive in their environment and which students do not. One common complaint about charter schools is that some walk a fine line between public and parochial school. Talk about “values” or “character” education may be code for thinly-veiled religious education. If that’s something you’re looking to avoid, it’s good to ask about it. And one of the best ways to learn about a school is to get opinions from parents of other students.

Knowing when it’s right
Charter schools can be lifesavers for families who feel that their other options are unacceptable. Class sizes are usually smaller, allowing kids to get more individual attention. Some utilize innovative teaching methods or educational philosophies that traditional schools are reluctant to try. And sometimes, the school becomes like a close-knit family, with students who know each other well and parents and staff who are really invested in making it work. It’s worth taking a serious look to find out if the charter school option is right for your family.

© Holly Case

Holly Case is a writer and mother of three who lives in Michigan. She can be found online at


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"The media have become the mainstream culture in children's lives. Parents have become the alternative. Americans once expected parents to raise their children in accordance with the dominant cultural messages. Today they are expected to raise their children in opposition to it." -- Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe columnist


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