How do charter schools differ from private schools?

As charter schools open, grow, and serve more students across the state, common misperceptions persist for some about what type of school they are.

It’s not uncommon to find someone who believes charters are private schools or charge tuition, but that is not the case in Arizona or nationally. So, what are the key differences between public charters and private schools?

“Charters, just like district schools, are required to take any students that show up, that want to attend their school,” said Kathy Senseman, Arizona State Board for Charter Schools (ASBCS) president.

Charter schools have a limit of how many students they can serve based on the student count quota agreed to in their charter contract with their authorizer, but they cannot turn away a student based on a placement assessment, zip code of residence, or family socioeconomic status.

However, private schools can require tests and other placement-related assignments or a tuition requirement in order for students to gain admittance.

Though private schools are regulated, because charter schools are public schools, they face tougher scrutiny than private schools and can be more easily shut down.  The vast majority of charters are authorized by the ASBCS, which approves applications for new charter schools, reviews expansion and replication requests, and takes action against schools when academic performance dips.

“We’re doing a lot of oversight of charters, and to me that’s another delineator between private (schools) and charters is the oversight,” Senseman said.

One key way the ASBCS provides oversight is through its process of dealing with a failing school.

If a charter school in Arizona receives an ‘F’ grade, it has just one year to improve after entering into a consent agreement after the ASBCS issues a Notice of Intent to Revoke their charter.

If the school does not improve in that year, it will be shut down. Private schools, however, will continue to exist until a significant drop in parent demand makes it no longer feasible to operate the school or system of schools.

Where did the notion that charter schools are private schools come from?

“I think the biggest one is that with the choice movement in Arizona, charter schools many times will have the look and feel of a private school,” Senseman said.

Charter schools are usually structurally smaller, serve fewer students – many around 500 students or less – and require a student uniform so they resemble the look and feel of a private school.

Understanding that charter schools are not private schools allows parents and guardians to better consider their public school options as they choose a school that is the right fit for their student.

“Arizonans are lucky enough that we live in a very choice-rich environment for our education. So, I think understanding what all of those choices entail is important when people are deciding what’s in the best interest of their student,” Senseman said.

Sierra Ciaramella

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