Schools of Choice

Most parents make decisions for their children every day: what time to wake up, what to eat, what time to go to bed. But a parent’s right to choose what is best for their child is often usurped by traditional public school zoning laws. The charter school model is an attempt to restore that right.

Jennifer Dauzvardis, program coordinator at The Center for Professional Development at Peak to Peak Charter School and consultant for the Colorado Department of Education’s Division of Innovation and Choice, says that charter schools empower parents to cater to their child’s learning style.

“Having choice in the school programs offered to the children in our community and across the state is paramount,” Dauzvardis says. “I believe the greatest benefit of the charter school movement is that parents are given the opportunity to choose a program that aligns with their beliefs and with their child’s needs.”

Education.com defines charter schools first and foremost as “public institutions, supported by public funds.” This means that they’re funding depends on their enrollment number as well as their Average Daily Attendance, or ADA. In order to qualify for these public funds, they must have a free and open admissions process (often a lottery system.

The site explains that the major difference between traditional public schools and charter schools is that the charters “have greater freedom from state rules and regulations than traditional public schools.” Independence is what separates charters from traditional public schools, says Nancy Box, principal of Imagine Charter School in Firestone.

“It’s the independence piece that makes us different,” Box says. “Our teachers and staff members are closer to the decision making process.”

Dauzvardis says charter schools usually take advantage of this freedom in how they design and focus their curriculum or hire and fire employees.

“The school may differ in vision and mission, curricular or instructional model, or organizational hierarchies,” Dauzvardis says.

Though charter schools are publicly funded, they do not receive funding for a facility like a traditional public school. A traditional public school puts out a bond to voters, which, if approved, creates a separate pool of money (beyond the per pupil revenue given to them by the state) for leasing and maintaining buildings. Charter schools must pay back a facilities bond with their per pupil revenue and fundraising dollars.

“We must pay the cost of our facility out of per pupil funding, as well as salaries and everything else that it takes to educate a child,” she says.

To create a charter school, a group of people (lawmakers, educators or community members) has to structure a proposal for a charter school in their area. This is only an option in states with charter laws, which includes 42 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Center for Education Reform website. CER also asserts that the wording of a state’s charter laws can have a huge impact on the success of charter schools in that state. The CER website contains detailed information about national charter school rankings and funding.

Charter schools have gained rapid popularity in recent years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A 2011 report revealed that the number of students enrolled in charter schools more than tripled from 340,000 in the year 2000 to 1.4 million in 2009. At the end of the 2009 school year, 5 percent of all public schools were charters.

Box says she can give some insight into why people are choosing charters.

“There is a lot of conversation going on in this country about improving education,” she says. “I think the charter school movement is one way in which that conversation is manifesting itself.”

Published in School Choice on October 30, 2011 (see PDF below).

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