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Should I Consider Going To A Charter School?

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As arguments over school choice and public school funding in America heat up on the political stage, you might be wondering about your own educational choices. If you feel your options are limited to tuition-free, public schools, you should know that you might have other options beyond your local public high school. And even if your options aren’t limited, you should know that there are strong choices other than your traditional public and private schools.


Charter schools are a hotly debated topic, with the basis of the controversy often rooted in education equality and equal access. While charter schools are by definition public schools to which you do not pay any form of tuition, they also typically have a capped attendance, meaning that it’s possible that there will be a long waitlist or a lottery system before a student even gets in. In addition, some people argue that charter schools filter money away from public schools, while others argue that charters are more efficient and effective at educating students with their allocated funds.


No matter which side of the argument you fall on, you should know your options and their implications. To learn more about charter schools and why you might consider attending one, keep reading.


What Is A Charter School?

There is confusion in the general public about what exactly constitutes a charter school. In fact, a 2014 Gallup poll revealed that only half of all Americans polled knew that charter schools are public schools, and nearly 60% believed that they could charge tuition and teach religion. Further, nearly 70% of those polled believed that charters could select students based on academic ability.


For the record, charter schools are in fact public schools, and as is the case with any other public school, they cannot charge tuition, teach religion, or select a student body based on ability. Instead, they operate under a charter that frees them from many of the state regulations imposed on more traditional public schools. Essentially, they operate independently.


Currently, charter schools educate 3.1 million students in 43 states. Nina Rees, head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, notes that “charters cannot pick the students they want. They have to accept kids with disabilities and ELLs, English language learners. Right now, charter schools are tilted to serve low-income kids. Over 50% [of students in charter schools] are from black and Latino households, mostly in inner cities.”


What adds to some of the confusion about charter schools is likely their variability from state to state. Though they are always publicly funded but privately run, the exact regulations imposed on them vary widely by region. In some states, only the state can authorize a charter, while in others, non-profits, local school boards, and even teachers’ unions can do so. In addition, the results from charter schools are highly variable. While some charter schools are among the top-performing high schools in the country, others are shut down by the state for poor performance or lack of organization.


Essentially, charter schools have more freedom while still being held accountable for student achievement. If you live near a high-performing charter school, it can be an excellent choice for your high school education.


Are Charter Schools Better Than Traditional Public High Schools?

Again, this is a hotly contested issue, and there is no clear answer due to the wide variability in charter school performance. It’s difficult to make generalizations and much easier to compare specific schools.


You can evaluate the effectiveness of a charter school education in much the same way as the effectiveness of your local high school. Charter school performance ratings can be found published alongside any other public schools. You can usually find data about a school’s standardized test scores along with student-teacher ratios and other demographic information on your state’s Department of Education website.


In addition, you can find high school rankings on sites like U.S. News and World Report, School Digger, and Niche. Just be careful as you browse these rankings to consider how they are calculated. For example, Niche rankings are based on a combination of test scores, diversity, parent and student satisfaction, and other factors, while School Digger rankings are based solely on test scores released by the state. It’s important to know what you’re looking at before you weigh your options.


Overall, though, charter schools do account for a higher percentage of national top-performing high schools. In fact, of the top 10 nationally ranked high schools according to U.S. News and World Report, five are Arizona charter schools managed by the BASIS Educational Group. Further, while 80% of the 22,000 schools ranked by U.S. News and World Report are traditional public schools, these tend to appear lower in rankings overall than many charter schools, which often have more stringent achievement standards for continued enrollment.


Of course, this doesn’t mean that your local charter school is a better option than your local, traditional public high school. It just means that it might be. You’ll need to do the research for your specific schools to make an educated choice that is best for you.


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Should I Consider a Charter School?

Of course, you should consider every school that’s a feasible option for you to decide what’s best for your specific academic needs and interests. Even if your local charter school isn’t ranked most highly relative to other schools, you might find that it’s a good fit for you in other ways.


For example, due to their autonomy, charter schools sometimes offer more specialized academic programs. Many charters are STEM-focused or based on unique pedagogical approaches like arts-integration. If your local charter school caters to your particular interests and is overall a strongly performing school, it might be a good choice for you.


Before you commit to attending a charter school, be sure you understand all of its academic and attendance requirements. Because they are not governed by the state, charters might have more stringent policies than you’re used to. Be certain that you will be able to meet the requirements in advance.


Finally, you should know that many successful charter schools have competitive admissions lotteries if the school is full or only has a limited number of places left. Some of these lotteries can be highly selective and have lengthy waitlists. If you don’t get in the first year that you try, you can usually continue to put yourself in the lottery in following years and stay on the list.


How Do Colleges View Charter Schools?   

College admissions committees generally view charter schools the same as they do any other school. They will consider the difficulty of your coursework along with your level of success. Obviously, if a charter school is highly ranked and you are successful there, college admissions committees will be impressed. However, this is the case at any highly ranked school, whether it is a charter school or not.


One element of the charter school experience that college admissions committees might consider is what it says about your initiative in taking control of your own education. Students who come from school districts that don’t offer a challenging course track or that don’t offer a specialized educational program might more directly manage their own education by selecting a charter school. While this will be viewed favorably by many admissions committees, it’s unlikely to be the determining factor in whether or not you are accepted. 


Ultimately, though, the high school that you attend won’t be what you gets you in or keeps you out of college. College admissions committees are looking for students who shine regardless of their academic setting. They seek students who stand out academically and achieve outside of the classroom as well. They realize that successful students will thrive in any school, finding ways to succeed regardless of how highly ranked their high school is.


In short, whether or not you attend a charter school will not be the determining factor in whether you get into college. Instead, your application will be weighed based on your own performance and accomplishments, not on the accolades of your high school.


Charter schools are a highly variable educational option. Some are among the top schools in the country, while others constantly perform poorly until their charter is revoked. The Center for Public Education reports that, on average, “the majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.” But this does little to offer insight into the specific charter schools in your area. You will need to do your own research to find out how the charter schools close to you compare.


If you’re a student considering your options for high schools or hoping to make a change in your current high school, be sure to do your homework before taking the leap. Charter schools can be a complete gamble if you don’t know what you’re getting into.

Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


For more information about high schools, see these popular CollegeVine posts:


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U.S. News and World Report’s Top High School Rankings Are Released

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What Should I Do if I Already Finished AP Calc BC/AP Lit Before My Senior Year?

5 Habits of the Successful High School Student

How to Pick Your High School Courses Freshman and Sophomore Years

What Class Rank Do I Need to Get into a Top School?

How to Smoothly Transition into a New High School


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.