A charter school is, in fact, a public school, but there are many differences between the traditional neighborhood schools to which you may be familiar, and the new charter school you've noticed across the street.
While a charter school is considered a public school, meaning that it gets its funding from the local, state and federal government and tuition may not be charged for students, it is run in a different fashion.
A charter school is not part of a unified school district, but is its own entity. Instead of the area’s school board making any decisions regarding the school’s students, textbooks or budget cuts, a governing board, typically made up of parents, lead the school. There is still a principal and supporting administration on campus, but there are no district officials to whom they answer.
A charter school must follow the state and federal standards, but they may have more flexibility in curriculum and other activities. Although they are actually public schools, they are, as mentioned above, not governed by the local district, and communicate directly with county or state offices of education.
Years ago, charter schools mostly emerged in low-performing school districts, stemming from parents who wanted to organize a school outside of a district likely struggling with funding, overcrowding, crime or a lack of qualified staff. In the last few years, however, more charter schools have been popping up in all areas, in an effort to offer a different type of education, whether it be a school focused on science, technology or arts. Teachers, parents or students may feel restricted in their or their children's studies in public schools at a time when standardized testing takes precedence over art classes, music lessons and team sports.
And in a time when massive cuts to education funds are being felt in cities all over the country, more parents are taking their children's education into their hands, rallying students and their families, disgruntled teachers, underpaid administrators and discouraged staff in an effort to start fresh elsewhere. The quality of education in charter schools varies vastly throughout the United States, however, the majority of the schools have wait lists.
Before a charter school can settle at a specific location, typically it must be approved by the local school district. An extensive charter must be written up laying out every aspect of the school, including it's mission and focus, as well as plans for special education, class size, school growth and other issues that must be addressed. Often times, a charter can be seen as a threat to public school districts, as they will likely lose money if the new school draws its district's students away.
If the local school district fails to approve the school—which must be done on the grounds that the charter is unsatisfactory—the school can appeal to the county board of education, and onward to the state board of education. Charter schools can often also be authorized by other organizations, including non profits, universities or government entities.
Rules to as what entities can authorize charter schools vary in different states. On the same note, different cities and states have limits as to how many charter schools can be authorized in a certain area, as well as how many students can attend.