What Are the Differences Between a Charter School and a Public School?

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With the number of charter schools on the rise, it’s no wonder that established and aspiring teachers are starting to take notice. These institutions are different from traditional public schools in key ways, including who operates them, how much autonomy the school and instructors have in setting a curriculum, what extracurricular programs available and how well students perform academically. Educators are likely to be particularly interested in the distinctions between what it is like to teach at charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools.

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Independently Operated

One point that commonly confuses people is whether or not charter schools count as public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded by taxpayer dollars, which makes them different from private schools that are fully separate from the public school system. They are typically tuition-free, which puts them more in line with traditional public schools than private schools. Some charter schools choose to highlight this funding information by referring to themselves as “public charter schools,” Forbes reported.

However, unlike traditional public schools that must follow state and local school district standards and are subject to considerable government oversight, charter schools are independently operated. They operate on a charter, or contract, that allows the operator more autonomy. Those operating a charter school can be private and even for-profit organizations, which is why charter schools are often criticized as a privatization of public education. Most of the 7,000 taxpayer-funded charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Just 15 percent of charter schools are operated by for-profit companies, according to U.S. News & World Report.

As of early 2019, 3.2 million students in 43 states attended a charter school, Education Week reported.

Freedom of Curriculum

Perhaps the biggest impact of this increased independence and autonomy concerns the curriculum students learn in the charter school. While the curriculum at traditional public schools is largely determined by external authorities, school directors and administrators and classroom teachers in a charter school get more say in the content covered in class.

Some charter schools use this freedom to develop a focused curriculum that revolves around college preparatory courses, studies in the arts or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. However, charter schools aren’t as theme-oriented as magnet schools, which are also publicly funded but answer to more regulations and oversight, according to U.S. News & World Report.

The drawback to this freedom of curriculum is that, when schools don’t have to meet minimum curriculum requirements, there can be gaps in a student’s education unless the curriculum is carefully planned – which some charters accomplish better than others.

Limited Extracurricular Programs and Variable Student Performance

Certain factors that set charter schools apart are also drawbacks compared to traditional public schools. Although every charter school is different, many offer fewer extracurricular activities than public schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. Arts and athletics programs, in particular, are likely to be less robust and varied in a charter school. This can mean fewer opportunities for students to pursue their interests within the school, resulting in somewhat weaker college applications. Families may choose to pursue these interests outside of the charter school through private lessons or leagues, often at their own expense.

Although charter schools are designed to offer a different, and improved, educational experience, how well they do so varies a great deal. Some charter schools today have excellent reputations. Charter schools account for only seven percent of public schools across America, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but they make up 20 percent of the top schools ranked on U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools ranking. On the other end of that spectrum, there are charter schools whose high-profile scandals, closures and failings have captured national attention.

Overall, charter schools now perform better than they did earlier on in their history, which only dates back to the 1990s. While 2009 studies lamented underperforming charter schools, researchers saw significant improvement in charter school performance by 2013.

Differences in Teaching at Charter and Traditional Public Schools

As a teacher, your interests in charter schools may be somewhat different compared to that of parents who may send their students to these institutions. Although factors like academic performance and longevity of schools certainly matter to you, there’s a good chance that you are wondering about the work environment of a charter school. Switching from teaching at a public school to a charter school has both advantages and disadvantages.

For teachers who feel trapped by regulations, standardized curricula and the need to teach to a test, charter schools can be a breath of fresh air. Having more say in both big and small matters of content and curricula and the smaller class sizes to provide individual attention can make instructors who have fallen out of love with the profession remember why they entered it in the first place. Often, charter school teachers report greater parent involvement, which can help reinforce lessons learned in the classroom.

However, charter school teachers sometimes miss out on the benefits available through jobs at traditional public schools. They typically aren’t part of the teacher’s union that negotiates contracts and salaries at public schools, which means they have fewer protections. Charter schools typically pay less than traditional public schools, where collective bargaining practices help increase wages. You may also end up working more hours – both contracted time, as the school day and school year may be longer than the traditional public school schedule, and time outside of the school day.

The first years of a charter school’s existence are crucial to determining whether it will meet the standards outlined in the charter and be allowed to continue operating long-term. Often, this translates to longer hours for teachers at these new schools.

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