Charter schools are all the rage these days. The public is increasingly smitten with them — in this year’s Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup education poll, 68% of respondents said they support charter schools, up from 42% in 2000 — but few people know what charters are. When the education journal Education Next asked Americans some basic questions this summer about charter schools, such as whether they can charge tuition or hold religious services, fewer than 1 in 5 respondents knew the correct answer (which was no in both cases). The confusion is so pervasive that more than half of the teachers surveyed couldn’t answer the questions correctly either.
Quick primer: Charters are public schools that generally operate independently of traditional school districts. Since 1992, they have grown in number from one in Minnesota to about 5,000 in 40 states and the District of Columbia. (Ten states don’t have laws allowing charter schools.) Collectively, they serve about 1.6 million students, and an estimated 420,000 kids are on various waiting lists to get into them. By law, when more students apply to a charter than there are seats available, the school has to hold a lottery to determine who gets in.