This article explains the relationship of public schools and charter schools. If you are considering sending your child to a public or charter school, read this article to learn more about public schools in general and charter schools in particular.

Charter schools are actually one type of public school, but they have so much in common with private schools, that many people think of them as being in a separate category. Here's an explanation of the different types of public school, and how charter schools fit in with the rest.

Public Schools: the Numbers

 In 2006, there were 98,793 public schools in the United States. They are spread throughout, with numbers ranging from a are  low of 234 public schools in Delaware to 10,038 in California. Of these 98,793, a total of 88,959 - or a bit over 90% - what the United States Department of Education (USDOE) refers to as “Regular” public schools: the neighborhood-based schools that are mandated to accept all children that live in the area.

 The regular public schools offer education at several standard levels, referred to as primary, middle, and high schools. It is important to note that these levels are open to some interpretation, as different schools are configured differently.

  • Primary includes prekindergarten, when it is offered, and may go as high as grade 8. For example, there are a number of K-8 schools.
  • Middle may have any grade from 4 to 7 as its lowest grade, and its highest grade may be from 4 to 9.  Most typical are middle schools with grades 6-8 and 7-8.
  • High may have any grade from 7 to 12 as its lowest grade, but 12 is the highest grade.
  • Other is used for any configuration that does not fit that categorization, including ungraded schools.

In 2006, there were 52,178 regular primary schools, 16,227 regular middle schools, 15,663 regular high schools, and 3,551 regular other schools. This adds up to 87,619 regular public schools. This doesn't match the total of 88,959 regular public schools in the other table, and the USDOE offers no explanation.

Types of Public Schools

The USDOE identifies three other broad categories of public school besides regular:

  • Special education - a public school, either elementary or secondary, that has a primary focus on and adapts curriculum and instruction for special education students in any of the following areas: deaf, deaf and blind, hard of hearing, health impaired, mentally retarded, multi-handicapped, orthopedically impaired, seriously emotionally disturbed, speech-impaired, or visually impaired students.
  • Vocational education - a public school, either elementary or secondary, that has a primary focus on career, technical, or vocational education as well as educates and trains students in at least one semi-skilled occupation or technical occupation.
  • Alternative - a public school, either elementary or secondary, that meets four criteria: it attends to student needs that are not usually able to be met in regular public schools; it provides an education that is nontraditional; it is supplementary to the regular school system; and it cannot meet the classification criteria for either regular, special education or vocational education schools.

 The alternative schools include charter schools and magnet schools, in USDOE terms. Let's look at what each of the types means:

  • Charter school - a public school, either elementary or secondary, that operates under a specific charter that the state legislature or other appropriate authority grants, designating it a charter school. It is administered either by a regular school district, a state education agency, or a chartering organization.
  • Magnet school - a public school or program, either elementary or secondary, that is designed for the specific purpose of attracting students who have a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds  with the goal of voluntary reduction, prevention, or elimination of racial isolation. In addition, or alternatively, a magnet school may provide a focus, whether academic or social, on a special theme.

 Nationally, in 2006, there were 1,956 special education schools, 1,240 vocational schools, and a total of 6,638 alternative schools. Of the alternative schools, 4,132 were charter schools and at least 2,268 were magnet schools (data were not available for magnet schools in 6 states, making it impossible to give an exact total).

Focus on Charter Schools

Charter schools exist in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Ten states have no charter school law. They are: Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. Of these, Alabama, Kentucky, and Maine report having magnet schools.

The first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota•the first state to have a charter school law - in 1992. The 4,132 charter schools in the United States in 2006 were educating 1,157,359 students, over 2% of all public school students. The five states with the greatest number of charter schools in 2006 were, in order from greatest to least: California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Ohio. Twenty-nine states that have charter schools have fewer than 100 of them. The lowest number of charter schools in a state that did have them was 1 in Mississippi. In 2008, there were more than 4,500 charter schools serving over 1.3 million students.

 The key differences between charter schools and regular public schools lies in three elements that help define them: they are held accountable, not just in general, but to achievement goals embedded in their charters. Their student body is made up of children whose parents chose the school, and the school is tailored to the student body's needs. They are given freedom from certain bureaucratic procedures with the idea that this will give them a greater ability to focus on creating academic emphasis.

You can see that within these outlines, there is room for an enormous diversity of approaches and programs. To find the charter schools in your state, you can use the “Search for Public Schools” tool at National Center for Education Statistics website:  Simply enter your city or state in the “School Information” section, and choose only “charter school” and “All” for Grade-Span in the “Additional Characteristics” section.


 Center for Education Reform: Just the FAQs - Charter Schools

 National Center for Education Statistics: Numbers and Types of Public Elementary and Secondary Schools From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2006-07 - First Look

 National Center for Education Statistics: Definitions: Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States: 2002-03: Methodology: Definitions

 Written by Mary Elizabeth