So, what is the difference among these options and what is all the fuss about? Assuming nothing, first let’s talk about good old fashioned public school. A public school is funded mainly through state and local governments. The United States Constitution does not address education at all, leaving decisions about education for each state to make. Every state has a provision for funding and regulating a “free and appropriate public education” for children between certain ages, generally covering kindergarten through grade twelve. Each state also includes compulsory ages for education, mandating that every child between those ages get an education. Most will allow parents to homeschool if they don’t want their children to go to an actual brick-and-mortar school. The United States Department of Education was not created until 1980, during Jimmy Carter’s administration. It generally accounts for about 7% of overall education dollars, but has a huge influence through programs like No Child Left Behind.
Most children attend traditional public schools, and most teachers in these schools are part of teachers’ unions; mainly the American Federation of Teachers or the National Education Association. The teachers’ unions have had a huge influence, for better or worse, due to intense lobbying efforts across the country.
In 1991, charter schools were born in Minnesota and have been spreading ever since. These public schools - yes charter schools ARE public schools - offer parents in local school districts a choice outside of the traditional, usually district run, schools. Charter schools can be operated by non-profit organizations, for-profit educational management organizations, a group of teachers, or even a traditional public school district. The idea behind charter schools is to provide the operators of the schools with more flexibility in how educational services are delivered. Each school commits to its plan and its accountability measures through a “charter” with an authorizing authority. Each state that chooses to allow charter schools stipulates what type of organization can be a charter authorizer. Some states mandate that only the school districts themselves can authorize a charter. Some have specific agencies or organizations established just for this purpose, and others allow certain universities to provide this important function. Students who attend charter schools usually have to meet the same testing requirements as students in traditional public schools.
Contrary to much of what you see in the press these days, charter schools may NOT charge tuition and MUST admit all students in the same way traditional public schools do. In the event that there are more applicants than space will allow, the charter school holds a lottery, like the ones that have been depicted in recent movies.
There has been a lot of argument about whether charter schools are better than their more traditional counterparts. You can justify whatever position you believe by finding the study that agrees with you. It seems that there are great charter schools and great traditional public schools, and really terrible schools of both types as well. The argument really shouldn’t be about which is better; it should be more about what is better for each individual child.
Meanwhile, vouchers are beginning to take hold in some places. A voucher is when a state provides money for parents to use for education outside of public schools, usually in non-public schools. There is talk in Florida right now about creating vouchers for parents to use for a wider variety of educational options, including the purchase of computers for their children to access virtual schools (more about this option in a minute). There are two main types of vouchers; privately funded and publicly funded. Privately funded programs allow donors, usually large corporations, to donate money in exchange for tax breaks. A set amount of money is given to families to use for tuition in private schools. Publicly funded vouchers divert public dollars from public schools, allowing parents to use a portion of the money that would otherwise go to the local public school, for the private school of their choice. Contrary to much of what you might read, these programs actually SAVE public schools money since they don’t give parents 100% of the funds, and many of the students who benefit are high-needs kids, who generally cost much more to educate. This happens because parents most often have a strong desire to keep their kids in the “regular” school and aren’t looking for options unless their child is experiencing difficulty in school.
Although many people are adamantly opposed to using public dollars in private educational settings, this is really nothing new. We have been doing this for decades in preschool and post-secondary settings. Head start programs have long been offered by private preschools, and many states now allow vouchers for universal preK programs simply because local elementary schools lack the capacity to ramp up these programs without astronomical costs. Pell grants and other federal and state programs have long provided funding that post-secondary students can use at institutions of their choice, public or private. I could not have finished college without this funding, and I used it at a combination of public and private schools. Both of my children used this funding as well; one in a state school and the other in a very expensive private institution. Almost everyone I know has taken advantage of these programs, and I have never heard a soul complain that Pell grants shouldn’t be allowed to be used in private colleges or universities. So, I am completely baffled why this has become such a flashpoint in education reform.
Finally, virtual schools are programs that allow kids to get instruction via the Internet. Some of these programs have a “live” teacher who interacts with the student, while others are completely computer-driven. There are also programs where kids can attend a traditional classroom virtually in a Skype-like environment, and webinar-style programs where kids can share a screen with a tutor who might be across the street or across the globe.
In case you can’t tell by some of my earlier comments, I am for school choice for K-12 education, in all of its forms. For over a quarter of a century I have worked in education, in regular old public schools, charter schools, and private schools. I have been a member of the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and also worked in places without union representation. Here is what I know for sure. Every kid deserves the very best education available, and we should not be quibbling about who provides it, or how it is provided. Parents are the best people to determine what school is best for their kids and it is time we respected them enough to give them real options.