About Charter Schools


Charter schools are independent public schools, designed by educators, parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and others who are interested in providing a quality education to children in their community. Charters operate outside the educational bureaucracy that too often stifles innovation in traditional public schools. They are not private schools - as public schools, charters do not charge tuition and they may not "pick and choose" their students. However, charters do have similar attributes to private schools such as the autonomy and accountability that have allowed most private institutions to provide an excellent education to their customers.

Charter schools and cyber charter schools are unique and innovative initiatives that are changing and improving the educational landscape in Pennsylvania and across America. Charter schools are independent public schools custom-designed by local citizens -- including parents, teachers, and community leaders -- to fulfill a specific, often unique, and always locally driven educational mission. A charter school, as defined by Act 22 of 1997, is an autonomous Local Education Agency (LEA). Act 88 of 2002 addresses issues related to cyber charter schools. Charter schools are designed to operate free of most state mandates, except those ensuring the health, safety, and civil rights of our children.


Why are charter schools so important?

Charter schools put communities in charge. They empower parents, teachers, and communities to custom-design unique educational programs that meet the specific needs of their children. Charter schools encourage competition and are designed to increase student achievement. Finally, charter schools are more accountable than traditional public schools. The concept is simple: the charter school must clearly state its educational goals and objectives and how it plans to achieve them. If the school does not meet the goals it sets, the community may vote not to renew the charter and the school may close.

Why should school boards support the creation of charter schools?

Charter schools enable communities to provide new and vibrant opportunities for their students and operate without many of the costly and stifling mandates that hinder creativity and innovation in public education. Through the creation of charter schools, school boards see firsthand how further mandate relief benefits all public schools in Pennsylvania. Also, charter schools foster innovation and serve as models for traditional public schools. Finally, through expanded community and parental involvement, charter schools increase support for public education in Pennsylvania.

Are Pennsylvanians interested in charter schools?

Absolutely. Since January 1997, the Department of Education has awarded competitive planning grants to Pennsylvanians interested in establishing charter schools in their communities. More than $5 million has been awarded to diverse organizations, enabling them to prepare charter school applications. One hundred seventeen public charter schools serving more than 50,000 students are operating in Pennsylvania. Twelve of these charter schools are cyber charter schools and serve over 10,000 students.
To assist Pennsylvanians in planning these innovative new schools, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has sponsored an ongoing series of workshops that focus on the essential elements of successful charter schools. Thousands of Pennsylvanians have attended these workshops, and the Department continues to receive many calls each week from individuals seeking more information about charter schools. Additionally, individuals at the grassroots level have mobilized their support for charter schools. The Charter School Resource Center, Philadelphia, and Foundations Inc./Drexel University in Philadelphia have each formed regional, technical-assistance centers to assist in the establishment and operation of charter schools.
Of significance, the operators of Pennsylvania's growing number of charter schools have formed the Pennsylvania Coalition of Charter Schools (PCCS) and are building this fledgling organization into a bonafide representative of the interests of Pennsylvania's education consumers.

Who grants the charter?

Individuals or groups seeking to establish a public school must apply to the local school board of the district in which the school will be located. The application must outline the school's educational mission and goals and its plan to achieve them. Individuals or groups seeking to establish a cyber charter school, which provides a significant portion of instruction through the Internet or other electronic means, must apply to the PA Department of Education. The application must outline the school's educational mission and goals and its plan to achieve them.

Why is a viable appeals process necessary?

On July 1, 1999, a State Charter Appeals Board (CAB) was constituted to hear appeals from groups that have been denied a charter, have had their charter revoked or have not had their charter renewed. The initial review by the locally elected school board recognizes the need for local oversight in establishing a charter school. However, it is possible that a school board might consider the creation of new, innovative educational opportunities as a criticism of the public schools in its community.
An appeal to an independent, regulatory panel (i.e., one without a direct stake in the outcome) protects the integrity of the charter process by providing applicants with an opportunity to obtain an objective, impartial review of a local decision.

How is a charter school funded?

A charter school receives funding from the school districts in which the students reside. The charter school receives the amount the district would spend on each student, minus the average per student expenditure for special education programs; nonpublic school programs; adult education programs; community/junior college programs; student transportation services; facilities acquisition, construction and improvement services; debt service and fund transfers; and federal programs from the school district or constituent districts for each resident student attending the charter public school.
For special education students, the charter public school receives an additional per pupil amount based on the district's special education expenditures divided by the state-determined percentage of students eligible for special education funding. Intermediate units also must provide special education services to charter schools at the same cost as services provided other schools, as requested.
Funds received by charter schools are taxpayer dollars that support students who are residents of local school districts. These funds are expended regardless of whether the students attend charter schools or traditional public schools. Implementation funding grants are also available for approved charter schools through a federal grant.

Who can attend a charter school?

Pennsylvania students are eligible to attend a charter school at no charge to their families. The students of the school district that grants the charter receive first preference. Students from outside the district can attend tuition-free on a space-available basis. The school district in which a student resides is responsible for charter school funding. If there are more applicants than spaces available, students shall be selected by lottery. Additionally, a charter school may be a regional school, approved by more than one school district, allowing the approving districts' students equal access to the charter school's lottery.
Students from outside the approving districts can attend regional charter schools tuition-free on a space-available basis. Charter schools may establish reasonable criteria for admission to a particular grade level or area of concentration, e.g., pre-requisites in technology, math, science, or the performing arts. In 1999, the General Assembly amended the charter school law to allow charter schools to restrict admission to "at-risk" students.

Because a charter school is deregulated, do enough safeguards exist to protect the students?

Enrollment in a charter school is voluntary. If the parents are not satisfied, the student may return to his or her assigned school in their district of residence. Charter schools must adhere to all laws and regulations protecting the health, safety and civil rights of their students and to all other sections of the Public School Code and state regulations specifically enumerated in Act 22 of 1997.

How widespread is the charter school movement?

The first charter schools law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. As of July 2004, 40 states have laws allowing for the creation of charter schools. Strong laws are necessary to ensure the creation of charter schools. 
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