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How To Decide if Charter Schools are Right for Your Family

admissions, class sizes, program options and more

Cynthia Campos recalls the day her daughter, Anissa, now 14, received her acceptance letter to one of North Texas’ charter schools, the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts (FWAFA), with a glimmer in her eye. “You would have thought she just got into an elite college. She was screaming and crying,” Campos says with a chuckle. “It was such a big moment for all of us. I could finally take a breath and relax.”

In addition to applying at FWAFA, Campos had Anissa’s name on several other charter school waiting lists. Campos was living in Aledo at the time and looking to move back to Fort Worth, but says the determining factor was whether or not Anissa could get into a charter school.

“Every time I looked up stats for the district we would be entering, it just didn’t line up with what we were getting in Aledo, which is why we moved [there] to begin with,” Campos explains. “Not to say that she wouldn’t have excelled in a traditional public school, but when I compared the schools in the area to where we were, their ratings and test scores were just so low.”

Ally Pires Tooley of Flower Mound says that charter schools landed on her radar once her son, Nixon, now 13, was preparing to enter kindergarten. “Our son is gifted, and I knew he needed an environment where he would be educated in a way that was different than the way traditional schools are taught,” she shares.

“It’s not that we were concerned about enrolling him in a regular public school. We live in Lewisville ISD, which is a great district,” says Tooley. “However, Founders Classical Academy offered that extra structure and support that he needed to really be challenged.”

As 2019 enrollment numbers for Texas charter schools nearly tripled those of 2012, it’s clear that more parents are opting for those campuses over traditional public schools. According to Texas Education Agency (TEA) data, there are currently 336,745 charter students enrolled, spread across more than 700 campuses.

Another 55,069 students are on waiting lists for acceptance. While charter schools are educating only 6.3% of Texas students, the stats reflect increasing interest in this alternative education pathway.

The basics to understand about charter schools

Authorized in Texas in 1995, charters are designed to give parents another free, public education option for their children. Charter schools are autonomous from independent school districts and operate according to their own contract, or charter, with the state.

Besides charters, the most common schooling options for Texas families include traditional public, magnet and private (as well as homeschool, but the significant differences make that form of education outside the scope of this story). The funding mechanism for each type of school varies.

Public schools receive funds from the state. Magnet schools—independent school district campuses that are centered around a specific subject area, such as STEM—also receive funding from state and local taxes, with additional local, state and federal funding to support their subject concentration. Private schools primarily rely on tuition, grants and donations.

Charter schools have only one source of funding, and that is the state.

A common misconception is that charter schools receive more money than traditional public schools.

There is some level of truth to that; charter schools do receive more money from the state budget. However, since independent school districts also receive money from local taxes, the average charter school takes in an overall total of $676 less per student, or 94% of the funding that traditional public schools receive.

Since they are both public, there can be confusion on how charter schools operate compared to independent school district campuses. Both are overseen by TEA and credentialed in the same way, in factors including state accreditation, financial ratings and academic ratings.

Charters are held accountable to the same academic standards, using the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR testing. (There is a difference when it comes to performance. Charter schools that don’t meet academic or financial standards for three consecutive years must close. Traditional public schools with academic struggles have five years before state intervention, such as replacing campus personnel.)

Like traditional public schools, there isn’t an option for faith-based curriculum, and charters are tuition-free campuses.

With those basics in mind, here are five essential factors to consider about the charter course.

All About Admissions

Charters are, generally speaking, open-enrollment schools. But that doesn’t mean that every student who applies will get in.

There is a short, statewide admission application for open-enrollment charter schools; that application covers basic identifying information on prospective students. Until COVID-19 became a factor, charters served students from designated geographic boundaries.

But right now, and maybe in the future, geography is not really an issue. When the pandemic hit, the state allowed charters to serve students all over Texas through virtual academies.

Rebecca Good, Ed.D., CEO and superintendent of Legacy Preparatory Charter Academy—which serves K–12 students at campuses in Plano and Mesquite—explains that Texas lawmakers will have to address charter-based, boundary-free virtual education in the current legislative session in order for it continue beyond this school year.

She adds that it’s hard to know if lawmakers will authorize boundary-free virtual schooling to go on in perpetuity. At any rate, boundaries tend not to be an issue for charter families—they tend to be extremely wide.

“Most parents who have called us and applied are within the boundary,” says Good. “We serve from Melissa up in the north to Duncanville and DeSoto in the south, and from Farmers Branch and Irving out to almost Greenville. The area is huge.”

It is not uncommon in the charter world for more students to apply than the number of spots available. In that case, the charter follows its policy to either hold a lottery for the open positions or fill spots in the order applications were received. In the lottery system, applications are selected at random.

Once the seats have been filled, the remaining applicants go on a waitlist. If a seat becomes available, the next application is again blindly chosen to fill the void.

This is why so many parents scramble to start their child at a charter in kindergarten—there are vastly more seats available, and once a student is admitted, they keep their seat until they are no longer enrolled at that school. Yet another benefit to applying early is a rule that many schools include in their charter, stating that they will automatically accept or give preference to siblings of the accepted student.

Charter schools with a fine-arts specialization may require an audition as part of the admissions process.

Campos’ daughter went to three auditions for FWAFA over the years, beginning in fourth grade. Anissa tried out again in fifthgrade. When she didn’t get accepted, she took a year break, then auditioned again in seventh grade—which is when she received her acceptance letter.

Academic Approach

In terms of student grades, charters operate under the same A–F point scale system as traditional public schools, and the graduation requirements are the same. Charter school families, though, may find more latitude in how classes are structured and learning is approached.

“We follow state curriculum, but we’re able to package it in a way that’s more appealing to the kids,” says Good. “We use a lot of project-based learning. Our school also has tutoring from 3:30 to 4:30pm every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as Saturday school on various weekends throughout the year.”

While charter schools began simply as an alternative to independent public school districts, many charter campuses developed an academic specialty.

Good’s schools focus on STEM and foreign language. Susan Feinberg, a Plano mom, enrolled her 6-year-old son at International Leadership of Texas in Garland for its emphasis on foreign language. “Our initial interest in the charter school was that it is essentially trilingual, with English, Spanish and Chinese studies,” Feinberg says. “And the Spanish is full immersion. Our local public elementary didn’t offer language learning.”

If you have a child with special needs, charters are an option. Charter schools are not permitted to discriminate against students with disabilities, and 8% of students in Texas public charters have special needs. Good says charter schools follow state and federal guidelines in terms of special programs, such as those for dyslexia, speech therapy and learning disabilities.

Meanwhile, a charter doesn’t have to offer gifted and talented programs, but if it does, the campus must adhere to state policies. Most high school charters offer honors, Advanced Placement and dual-credit classes.

Class Sizes   

Many parents who go the charter route are looking for a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and more personal learning environment. Brady Cooper, Grand Prairie’s Uplift Grand Preparatory High School academic director, says that’s the case at his school.

“As principal, I know most of my scholars’ families. When I was in high school, my principal didn’t even know my name, much less my parents’,” Cooper jokes, adding that “in general, charter schools are going to be smaller than traditional public schools, which can definitely give you much more of a family feel.”

Class sizes were extremely important to Campos. “My motivation behind deciding what school to place Anissa in has always been the smaller classrooms,” she says. “I didn’t want her getting lost in the crowd. As we grow as a society, we tend to see that the classrooms are so packed that our teachers don’t always have the option to allocate their time to individual students.”

But keep in mind that smaller classes aren’t guaranteed in charter schools. While there are statewide guidelines pertaining to class size, charters are not bound by those limits.

Currently, the minimum for traditional public K-4 Texas classrooms is set at 22 students, with a maximum of 28 students. A 2017 analysis of TEA statistics done by the Dallas Morning News showed that majority of Texas public elementary schools adhered to this with a student-to-teacher ratio of 22:1, while over half of the schools with a ratio of 30:1 were charter schools.

In other words, the classes may seem smaller, but that may be due to the size of the school itself.

Something that the study didn’t cover are non-traditional ways of teaching in which charter schools are known to operate. Many charter schools frequently participate in splitting up their classroom with the use of teacher’s aides, who are not counted when determining the teacher ratio.

Regardless, current charter school parents we spoke to consider their school’s class sizes small and appreciate that factor.

“My youngest son is severely dyslexic, and because of the small class size they were able to pinpoint the areas he struggled in early on,” shares Lori Browning, a parent and employee at High Point Academy—a network of charter campuses serving elementary through high school students in Tarrant County. “We have witnessed exponential growth [in my son] over the last two years with lots of tutoring and through a dyslexic program provided by the school. I know that regular public schools often provide these services as well, but I think that the smaller teacher-to-student ratio at High Point has a lot to do with his success.”

Campus Culture

The reasons a parent may pursue a charter school education for their child extend beyond academics. Diversity is one notable element.

The Texas Public Charter Schools Association (TPCSA) reports that public charter schools in Texas “have nearly double the rate of Hispanic teachers and four to five times as many Asian and Black teachers” compared to traditional school districts.

Charters also enroll more children of color. “Research consistently finds that students benefit when their teachers and mentors can authentically connect with their experiences and culture,” notes material available on the TPCSA website.

Those benefits may extend to disciplinary matters. A 2018 study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology shows that teachers of color interpret behavior among students of color differently than white teachers, with fewer disciplinary actions from the teachers of color; meanwhile, 2006 research found in the Kappa Delta Pi Recordindicated that teachers of color may be more effective at deescalating behavior problems among children of color.

It’s important to note that circumstances and requirements for independent school districts may vary from charter schools, so exact comparisons aren’t possible.

But available data indicate that public charter schools in Texas disciplined 7.2% of students during the 2018-19 year. That figure was 10.5% for traditional districts, according to the TPCSA—which goes on to note that charter schools prescribed 50% fewer in-school suspensions.

So-called restorative practices are sometimes credited for the lower discipline rates at charters.

Restorative practices focus on elements such as inclusion, equity, respect and rebuilding relationships. Rather than direct punitive measures, restorative practices may include talking circles, peer mediation and one-on-one counseling. While this approach may be used in public schools, it is often associated with charter schools.

When it comes to parental involvement on charter campuses, charter schools are required to develop Family Engagement Plans, as are school districts. Campos says that parental involvement is highly encouraged at her daughter’s school (or at least it was before COVID-19).

“There are always opportunities for us to be involved in what our children are learning, whether that’s through helping them practice or study, or watching a performance,” she says. “I really feel like parent involvement boosts our students’ achievement by showing them that we are all in this together, and FWAFA encourages that.”

Extra- and Co-Curricular Activities

Many charter campuses have extensive arts offerings (such as band, choir and dance), robust athletics programs are less common.

A Texas Charter Academic & Athletic League schedules charter-to-charter volleyball, basketball, soccer and track competitions—but sports tend to be smaller and less competitive in the charter setting.

Browning considers more limited athletics a fair trade for what her child gets by attending a charter school. “High Point has a decent sports program, but it’s nothing like the ones they have within the regular school districts. There’s just no additional funding for top-of-the-line facilities or equipment like there might be at a more traditional public school,” she says. “But I think that’s kind of the trade-off. We exchange the sports programs for a closer relationship between the teachers and our students.”

Some charter school educators say they try to tailor the activities they have to the interests of their students. “When you’re a smaller school, you do have potentially less extra-curricular options than a large comprehensive high school, where they can afford to offer more,” says Cooper. “We can offer extra-curriculars, but it’s going to be more catered and limited to what they want and are interested in trying.”

For example, Cooper explains, he had a group of students interested in debate at one point. A teacher put together a debate team that went on to compete in a mock trial tournament.

Of course, not every school will offer the activities, or quality of activities, a family considers important.

Misti McCalip’s children attended a Fort Worth charter school for four years before returning to traditional public school, and slim program offerings played a role in the family’s decision. “[My children’s charter school] just didn’t have enough funding for things like band, athletics, art, special needs or gifted programs—just the normal things that you come to take for granted at a regular public school,” she says.

After a fine-arts concert McCalip deemed unacceptable in quality, she pulled one daughter in the middle of the year. “I wanted to make sure that my daughter was not only receiving the best academic plan for her, but that she had access to other extra-curricular disciplines that would make her a well-rounded person. I didn’t feel like this school could support or provide that.”

Research school options before enrolling your child

The bottom line is that parents and students have choices, and it’s important to thoroughly research potential schools before enrolling.

There are excellent charter schools and then some that aren’t so good, as is true with other forms of education. Furthermore, each child has individualized needs and interests, and there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to education.

McCalip says she’s grateful for the freedom to cherry-pick her children’s method of learning. “The beauty of living in America during this day and age is that we can choose different educational avenues for each child,” she says. “We knew that a regular public school would be a better fit [for us].”

Tooley, whose son is thriving at his charter school, has a similar outlook. “I appreciate that we now have a system that allows parents to be flexible with their children and look into what they need at the moment in order to have a child that grows and truly blossoms into themselves.”

 Find a Charter

Interested in finding a charter school near you? The Charter School Division of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) provides a resource to the public called the Charter School Finder, including a search bar that goes by zip code and an explorative map for parents.

To find this tool, search “charter locator map” at tea.texas.gov. Jake Kobersky with TEA adds that a new resource portal containing even more information is in development and will be released to the public soon. 

Grade Check

As with other types of schools, charter schools vary in terms of their academic ratings. You can check out accountability scores (for public districts, schools and charters) on TEA’s website as well; search “accountability rating system” at tea.texas.gov to access reports.

Campuses did not receive ratings in 2020 due to COVID-19, but past reports are available.

Image courtesy of iStock.