From a presentation by Lori Kirsch-Goodwin and Hope Kirsch of Kirsch-Goodwin & Kirsch Education Law Firm for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates:
A charter school is “a public school that provides free public elementary and/or secondary education to eligible students under a specific charter executed, pursuant to a state charter school law, by an authorized chartering agency/authority and that is designated by such authority to be a public charter school.”
Charter schools are semi-autonomous, independent, nonsectarian, tuition-free public schools. 20 U.S.C. § 7221i(2). That means they are exempt from many state and local statutory and regulatory requirements, but charter schools are not exempt from federal laws that govern equal rights, access and discrimination. They receive public dollars and are prohibited from charging tuition. They are open to all children and may not have special entrance requirements, although they can be rigorous and impose requirements such as mandating uniforms, and they may have a focus, such as STEM, arts, acting, etc. If applications to attend a charter school exceed spaces available, enrollment is decided by lottery.
Charter schools are designed and operated by parents, educators, community leaders, educators, business entrepreneurs and others. They operate under a contract - the “charter” – with an authorized public agency, such as a local or state educational agency, an institution of higher education or a municipality, which is referred to as the “authorizer” or “sponsor.” An authorizer’s primary responsibilities are to review applications for charters, establish “charters” or contracts, ensure compliance and renew contracts. An “authorized public chartering agency” means a state educational agency (“SEA”), local educational agency (“LEA”), or other public entity that has the authority pursuant to State law and approved by the United States Secretary of Education to authorize or approve a charter school. 20 U.S.C. § 7221i (Definitions section).
The contract - or charter - details how the school will be organized and managed, what students will be expected to achieve, and how success will be measured. They must meet standards set forth in their charters for students and for the school as a whole, or else the chartering agency can close the school. Many charter schools enjoy freedom from laws and regulations affecting other public schools, so long as they continue to meet the terms of their charters. The charter must include a description of how student performance will be measured.
In return for the flexibility and autonomy gained from exempting charter schools from certain state or local rules and regulations, these schools must meet accountability standards outlined in the charter. A school's charter is reviewed periodically by the entity that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the accountability standards are not met.