As I meet new people, I am often asked what I do for a living. When I tell folks that I work with charter schools, I am often asked “just what is a charter school?”
It is a great question, as many people are unaware of, or have misconceptions about, charter schools. It is important that taxpayers supporting public education in New Mexico know about what charter schools are, how they are different from traditional schools and why we need them.
First, charter schools are public schools just like any other traditional school. This means that charters are publicly funded and tuition-free. Charters are funded with local, state and federal taxes just like any other traditional school. Like traditional public schools, charters receive state funding based on a formula for each child enrolled in the school. And, like a regular public school, they are open to any student who wishes to enroll and cannot discriminate on any basis.
Charter schools are different from traditional schools because, through a charter or contract with the state or a local school district, charter schools are allowed to be more independent, flexible and innovative in their approach to teaching students and improving student achievement.
How do they do this? Charters can keep classes small to give students more individual attention and more help in challenging areas. They can offer flexible schedules and hours, which can give students more time in the classroom, allow them to attend classes in the evenings or weekends or have access to additional accommodations.
Charter schools are often built around a core mission which encompasses a specific theme or direction of the school. For example, there are charter schools focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, performing arts, project-based learning, college preparation, career readiness, language immersion, civic engagement, classical education and global awareness. There are others that meet the needs of autistic students or other special needs students. Due to their smaller size and flexibility, charters can adjust their curriculum and teaching methods more easily than traditional schools that must have such changes approved through layers of administrative bureaucracy.
In exchange for the operational freedom and flexibility, charters are held to an even higher standard and more accountability than traditional schools. When a charter school opens, it is under a five-year contract specifying that it must demonstrate a high level of student academic progress in order to keep its doors open. There is a renewal process that every charter has to go through every five years, requiring that it meet the performance benchmarks outlined in the charter contract.
The performance contract and renewal process is a hallmark of the charter school movement. It shows how charter schools embrace the fundamental charter school proposition: higher levels of accountability than are found in other public schools in exchange for higher levels of autonomy and flexibility. If a charter school is not meeting its performance benchmarks, it risks closing. Traditional schools do not operate under that same standard.
Last, why do we need charter schools? Charter schools offer parents another public school option. We need charter schools because many students are not getting the education they deserve. Some are forced to attend chronically underperforming public schools in their communities. Others struggle to fit their learning styles or personalities to outdated educational models that don’t meet their needs.
In either case, these students are leaving school unprepared for the workforce or higher education, and limiting their long-term potential. These children and their families deserve a better option, and public charter schools can provide that option for families who need it. Increasingly, when given that option, parents are choosing to enroll their children in charter schools.
Bruce Hegwer, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, writes a monthly column for the Journal.