Between 1991 and 1995 twelve states passed statutes permitting a form of public education popularly known as "charter schools." A recent GAO report notes that as of the first of this year 134 charter schools have been established across the country. But considerable uncertainty exists as to what charter schools are. Advocates consider them an exciting innovation promoting local control of public schools; opponents contend that charter schools are actually private schools that will destroy our system of public education.
This piece is an effort to answer that question. Based on ongoing RAND research of recent legislation, this article describes the charter school concept. First, the concept's relationship to other well-known proposals for school reform is explained. Next, the essential characteristics of a charter school are described. Then the various approaches taken by the states to implement the charter concept are discussed. Finally, the basic types of charter schools available to states considering legislation are outlined.