Ahead of our debate, Charter Schools Are Overrated, we want to break down the legacy of charter schools, and the language being used around them. Hailed by some as the answer to education reform and condemned by others as a drain on public education, these schools are the source of contentious debate in communities across the country. So just how do charters work – and what sets them apart? Here’s what you need to know:

American charter schools were established 25 years ago with a Minnesota law intended to give educators more autonomy.  These schools, which operate independently based on the goals established in their charter, are monitored by local authorizers. Though regulations differ by state, authorizers typically include school boards, universities, state education departments, or other education organizations. Think of authorizers as a traditional public school’s governing body.

While all charter schools are tax-payer funded, some receive additional funding from individuals, foundations, and corporations. For-profit charter schools also receive local, state and federal dollars and serve similar roles as government contractors. Unlike private schools, charters cannot charge tuition, set admissions standards, or operate as a religious institution.

Most charter schools are single-building nonprofits. Others are run by not-for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMOs), like KIPP, Uncommon Schools and Success Academy, and some are operated by for-profit Education Management Organizations, which typically charge a fee for their services. In terms of traditional public education, CMOs function like a small school district, with each CEO assuming a role similar to a superintendent. 

While many charter schools have become associated with lower-income urban communities, many operate in small, rural communities, providing an alternative choice to underperforming public schools in the area.  Additionally, online charter schools provide digital course offerings.

Because charter schools receive public funds, they are public schools. Public schools that are not governed by a charter are often called traditional public schools or district schools.

Find out what charter school laws apply in your state here, and then join the debate.