Charter schools are a brilliant idea because they offer a diverse range of students a great education using taxpayer money.

Charter schools are the worst thing to ever hit humanity because they offer a not-so diverse range of students a great education using taxpayer money.

Confused yet? Good.

A lot of the back-and-forth about charter schools has to do with misperceptions, and a lot has to do with the difficulty of actually proving who benefits from them. But before we get into the arguments on both sides, let's take a peek at what a charter school actually is.

What Is a Charter School?

Our article on the differences between charter schools, magnet schools, and public schools in general tells you a lot more about, well, the diffs between charter schools, magnet schools, and public schools in general.

The short version is that a charter school gets established based on some principles that make it outside of the box—the box imposed by government-directed school rules, that is—and the school strikes up a charter with the school district to get itself up and running.

That way, the independent, anti-box school can still be a public school (i.e., open to all, funded by the state, all that), but it doesn't have to play by all the rules that bind traditional public schools.

Most charter schools are founded on a specific mission: for example, based on a specific educational philosophy or an idea for innovation, or including a certain specialization in the performing arts, students with disabilities, cat gifs, whatever.

As for admission, the idea is that it's open to all, but as you might imagine after all those pluses we rattled off, there's quite a demand to get in, so who does is usually determined by lottery.

And that's exactly where the hot-button-y stuff begins.

The Bomb Dot Com

Some proponents of charter schools crow that they are "looking like a possible alternative for the system itself," capable of improving U.S. education, especially for lower-income communities, on a vast scale (source).

Let's get into some bullet points with the other main pluses. Among the many positive points stated by advocates (many of which are discussed in this PBS article), charter schools

  • provide quality education to many children from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds who may not get equivalent attention in a regular public school.
  • provide that quality education thing—but without the cost of private schools.
  • have a lot more innovation and flexibility than public schools, which have to adhere to all of the regulations set by the state.
  • are free of a lot of the bureaucracy and red tape you see in many public schools.
  • can employ teachers who are often more motivated, innovative, and happy to be there.
  • usually function based on an ingrained sense of responsibility to the community, and are held to higher academic standards than your run-of-the-mill public school. (Why? Because, as Teach.com explains, that's the tradeoff for more autonomy).
  • see a higher graduation rate (according to some studies).

And, according to President of The Center for Education Reform Jeanne Allen in the article "Charter Schools Spark Reform," just the existence of charter schools is enough to boost performance at other public schools. In her words, "Charters have been like pebbles, causing ripples in their wake leading schools to improve offerings.” That means higher achievement in neighboring schools, she says.

Powerful pebbles, huh?

But before we get too on board, let's see where this argument is on the rocks.

Charter Schools? More Like Farter Schools

Here are some of the most common problems people cite when dissing on charter schools.

  • Students who perform poorly get the boot.
  • Charter schools get money that would otherwise go to regular public schools.
  • Charter schools get the high-performing students who would otherwise go to regular public schools. So on top of the first set of funds public schools lose out on, they also miss out on the cash that flows in as a reward for high achievement.
  • The model exacerbates inequality, as the departure of high-performing kids from public schools also means that academic diversity (and in some cases, racial and economic diversity, too) takes a plummet.
  • Backfilling (or lack thereof): when students leave and charter schools don't fill those empty spots (discussed in depth in this Ed Excellence article).
  • Some folks just don't believe the data. They say there's just too much variety for a solid verdict of good or bad to be reached.
  • Innovative, sure—but some of those experiments just aren't what kids need, and the schools lack the accountability to strike the right balance.

You can read a lot more info on most of these reasons—as well as rebuttals—in this article, or check out the two views side by side on Debate.org.

Overall, it's hard to rule either way on this one. And for good reason: when it comes to how to close the achievement gap in the U.S., there's not a whole lot of consensus. At this point, the debate is more about how to shift the model to address all those cons, as opposed to whether to do away with them overall.

After all, it's not so helpful for anyone to see charter schools as competing with public schools. But whether to alter the charter-obtaining procedure or try to make the charter structure replace that of traditional public schools (as this U.S. News piece suggests) is still about as hot as a button can get.

Otherwise, the argument goes, charter schools won't make much of a difference for U.S. education, but will stay something "akin to a poor man's private school.” And for something that aims to be a groundbreaking model for how our kids learn, that's not the best solution for either side of the argument.