Teaching

Charter Schools vs. Private Schools: What’s the Difference?

Charter Schools vs. Private Schools: What’s the Difference?
Your experience will probably depend more on the individual school than whether it's a charter or private. Both types of schools are free to set school-wide missions or operate under the guiding principles of a unique educational philosophy. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 9, 2020

Private schools exist independently of their districts. Charter schools are semi-independent but still technically public. To figure out where you belong, you need to know as much as possible about both.

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Parents today enjoy an increasing number of choices in how and where to educate their children at the elementary school, middle school, and high school levels. In addition to public schools and private schools, options include charter schools, magnet schools, international schools, alternative schools, and virtual schools. Many states have embraced homeschooling, enacted voucher and scholarship programs, and pursued other initiatives to broaden families’ school choices.

Consequently, teachers have more professional options than they had even a few decades ago. Some choose to work in the public school system, where advancement happens on a predictable schedule and unions help keep educators’ jobs secure. Others gravitate toward magnet schools because they’re passionate about a particular subject or vocation and want to share that passion. Still others opt to become charter school teachers, private school teachers, or even to teach as part of a homeschool collective funded by a group of families.

Different types of schools feature different atmospheres, pedagogical approaches, student demographics, and levels of parental involvement. Figuring out where you’ll be most comfortable and happiest as a teacher can be challenging. You should look closely at each option to determine where you’ll thrive. Two choice.—charter schools and private schools—can look quite similar on the surface. However, when you dig deeper, it’s clear that they can be very different.

In this article about charter schools vs. private schools, we cover:

  • What is a charter school, and how does it differ from a public school?
  • How do private schools differ from charter schools?
  • Do teachers at both kinds of schools have to meet the same licensure requirements?
  • Are class sizes smaller in private schools or charter schools?
  • Will I earn more teaching at a charter school or a private school?
  • How different is the experience teachers have at charters and private schools?
  • Will I be happiest teaching in a charter school, a private school, or a public school?

What is a charter school, and how does it differ from a public school?

The first thing you need to know is that charter schools aren’t private schools. They are operated by private companies and organizations, but they are paid for, in part, by taxpayers. They have to meet the same student achievement benchmarks (including standardized test scores) as other area schools. Charter schools are part of their local public school districts; they don’t charge tuition. Individual schools have contracts (or charters) with their districts that outline a management structure, funding, student expectations, and measures of success. As long as they uphold the terms of that contract, charter schools can operate outside most of the laws and regulations that govern public schools in the district.

That means charter schools have much more freedom when it comes to curriculum, enrollment, professional requirements for teachers, and educational mission. Teaching in a charter school can be very different from teaching in a public school setting. Charter school teachers can incorporate student interests or even their own interests into curricula, accommodate diverse learning styles, and modify lesson plans however they see fit as long as students meet the required achievement benchmarks.

The most significant difference between charter schools and public schools is that charters in many states can be shut down for various reasons. When charter schools are mismanaged or run out of money, the district can—and often will—shut them down. Public charter schools can also be permanently shuttered if they fail to meet academic performance expectations outlined in the charter.

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How do private schools differ from charter schools?

The most significant difference between private schools and charter schools is that private schools exist 100 percent independently of their public school district. They receive no tax dollars or public funding, and they operate outside of state, district, or school board control.

Private schools are typically paid for by parents, donors, endowments, alumni gifts, sponsors, and other types of private funders (in the case of parochial schools, the sponsoring religious organization may provide substantial funding). They can set any admissions requirements they choose (including requiring applicants to pass entrance exams), use curricula that may or may not meet state standards, and hire teachers using whatever criteria they deem appropriate. Each private school is its own entity, so it can be hard to generalize about these institutions.

Independent private schools tend to be smaller than charter schools, with just 10 to 15 students in each classroom. Because families pay for private school out of pocket and have particular expectations regarding outcomes, students may be better behaved and more engaged in classwork than their peers in charter schools. Teachers in private schools typically have the most freedom when it comes to what and how they teach. Charter school teachers have a lot of latitude, but at the end of the school year, students must meet standards set forth by the state. Private school teachers needn’t provide proof of student achievement to the local district.

Do teachers at both kinds of schools have to meet the same licensure requirements?

Charter schools can set their own educational and professional requirements for teachers, but only if they meet the licensure requirements set forth by the state’s department of education. Forty-five states regulate charter school teacher licensure requirements. In some, charter school teachers don’t have to have teaching certificates. In others, teachers at charter schools must meet the same licensure requirements as public school teachers. Many states have rules about how many teachers can be unlicensed in a given charter school and the criteria those unlicensed teachers must meet.

Private schools have carte blanche to hire any teachers they see fit using whatever criteria they choose. There are private schools that require, or at least prefer, that teachers have a teaching certificate. Some private schools prioritize degrees and professional experience when hiring new teachers. Looking at private school teachers’ staff bios n your area is one way to infer the qualifications local schools expect.

Don’t assume, however, that you can just decide not to get a degree in education or a teaching license because you plan to work in charter schools or private schools. First, not getting a degree in education can make life as a teacher harder. In a study that explored gaps in private school teachers’ skills, hundreds of teachers in private schools reported having to learn skills like classroom management and lesson planning on the job. More importantly, you may not be able to compete in today’s marketplace without a master’s degree—a credential held by about 50 percent of all teachers.

Are class sizes smaller in private schools or charter schools?

People associate charter schools with smaller class sizes, and in many cases charter school classrooms are smaller. Still, there are some charters with classrooms roughly the size of those in average public schools. At some charter schools, the student-teacher ratios are less favorable.

Fewer students attend charter schools in the United States, but you can’t conclude from that stat that there are fewer students in a given charter school. In almost all cases, private schools have smaller classrooms than other types of schools. That’s because these schools have no obligation to admit students and are free to limit the number of applicants accepted to keep class sizes small. If giving students as much individual attention as possible and extra help when they need it is essential to you, a private school might be the better fit.

Will I earn more teaching at a charter school or a private school?

Many people are surprised to learn that the highest-paid teachers (when you’re looking at averages) work in the public school system. Charter school teacher salaries are typically 10 to 15 percent lower than traditional public school teacher salaries. Private school teachers may earn somewhat more than charter school teachers but still earn less than teachers in public schools.

Obviously, there are outliers. Teachers employed by elite private schools probably earn more than teachers are charter schools and public schools. Still, according to PayScale, charter school teachers earn about $40,000 and private school teachers earn closer to $37,000. This may be because teachers in both environments are typically not part of a union and because both charters and private schools may be run by for-profit companies.

How different is the experience teachers have at charters and private schools?

Your experience will probably depend more on the individual school than whether it’s a charter or private. Both types of schools are free to set school-wide missions or operate under the guiding principles of a unique educational philosophy. Teachers at both charter schools and private schools typically don’t have the same kind of job security that public school teachers enjoy because employment is at-will and there isn’t union backing. However, they may also feel happier and more satisfied with their professional lives. Charter school and private school teachers usually have more freedom when designing lessons and special programs and interacting with students but may also be called upon to do more than just teach. It’s not unusual for teachers at these schools to act as lunch monitors, after-school club coordinators, or event chaperones.

The most significant difference between teaching at a charter school and teaching at a private school may be how you interact with parents. Private school parents tend to be a lot more involved in their children’s education. Not only do they volunteer more and fundraise more, but they also are more active in parent-teacher organizations. They may be more likely to feel like they are entitled to influence what happens in the classroom.

One more thing charter school teachers and private school teachers have in common is burnout. “I grew up watching my parents teach at private schools (different kinds of private schools even), and they and their teacher friends were given so many responsibilities in addition to their paid classroom positions that they always felt like they weren’t doing anything as well as they could,” said teacher Carrie Hagen. “This was my experience when I taught for a bit at a private Catholic prep school. The teachers were excellent and worked so hard, but the demands outside the classroom ‘burned’ a few of the younger ones out.”

Will I be happiest teaching in a charter school, a private school, or a public school?

All teachers work hard, regardless of what learning environment feels like the best fit. All teachers work both in and out of the classroom; there’s always something that needs doing. Some educators romanticize charter schools and private schools because they are free from some genuine problems that plague public education in the US, but there are upsides and downsides to working in all types of schools. You can’t be 100 percent sure you’ll be happier in a charter school, private school, or public school until you’ve taught in one. All you can do is look at each option with your priorities in mind.

Consider what your ideal teaching experience looks like. If you’re dreaming using the latest innovative educational practices in your classes, you might be happiest in a charter school. On the other hand, if you’re passionate about your subject area and want to teach the most engaged, best-behaved students, a private school might be the better fit. But if you want to make the greatest possible impact in the most students’ lives, the public school system with its diverse student population might be where you belong. Just remember that there can be as much variety among individual schools as there is among different types of schools. Never assume that a school will have the atmosphere, the resources, or the culture you’re looking for just because it’s a charter, private, or public. The more you know about a school, the easier it will be to decide if it’s the right one for you.

This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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