It is impossible to lump together our country's public schools: well-funded schools in privileged suburbs are far different than under-resourced schools in poor urban neighborhoods. Likewise, charter schools come in many varieties: they are shaped by a state's charter school laws, by the motivations and capabilities of the charter school's founders, and by the broader local, state, and national political climate.
That being said, several legal requirements are common to all charter schools. They are publicly funded, are nonreligious, are not to charge tuition, and must obey civil rights regulations.
Some charter schools have strong ties to their community, are led by experienced educators, and are committed to providing all children a comprehensive education that meets their needs. Others are led by entrepreneurs, sometimes as part of a national franchise, who too often see schools primarily as a source of money and profits and whose educational experience is limited. Many charter schools fall somewhere between these two poles.
Philosophically, the charter school movement started with several core assumptions. Two are most important: first, that freedom from bureaucratic rules and union contracts will foster innovation and improve academic achievement; and, second, that the lessons from the charter movement's successes will be used to improve public education overall. Any discussion of charter schools must ask not only whether charters promote a worthwhile vision of public education, but also whether they are faithful to their own promises.
The Many Meanings of Choice
While academic excellence and equity of access were dominant themes in education following the Civil Rights Movement, the concept of "choice" has risen to new heights in recent decades. A fluid and problematic concept, it nonetheless strikes home with many Americans; used properly and in moderation, it can ensure that public education is sensitive to the varying needs of this country's 50 million public school students representing an escalating number of nationalities and languages.