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What are public, private and charter schools?

Laura Willard is a law school grad who has successfully avoided using her education for eight years and counting. She's a wife and an adoptive mom to two kids. Motherhood is the best job she never knew she wanted so much until she had it...

Find the
right fit

Sending your child to school is no longer as simple as putting him on the bus headed to the nearest public school. Today, a parent has many choices about her child’s education.

Charter or Private School

Types of schools

Public schools

Public schools are controlled by a local elected or appointed board of education and are subject to the laws of the state in which they are located. They are required to accept children who live within a defined geographical area, with occasional exceptions for certain types of schools, and the school board must answer to a local board of education.

One important thing to remember about private school...no school clothes! Most private schools require uniforms, which translate into big savings when back to school shopping.

Private schools

Private schools consist of both independent and religiously affiliated schools. Some parents choose private schools because the curriculum incorporates their particular religious beliefs. Generally, parents must pay tuition. Religiously affiliated schools can receive additional funding from the religious organization to which they are tied, the board is often not accountable to the state, children don't always take state exams, and teachers are not always required to have state certifications. The schools may set their own admission requirements.

Charter schools

Charter schools were established as a way to set up schools with public funds but free them from many board of education requirements to which traditional public schools are subject. Each state has laws governing charter schools. In most cases, funding "follows the student," meaning funds are diverted from the public school the child would otherwise attend, and students must take the same state tests that are administered at public schools. Teachers generally must be state certified, and the board answers directly to the state, not a local board of education. Admissions are almost always determined by a lottery system.

Get off to a good start: Choosing a kindergarten >>

How do you decide?!

Determining the type of school that is best for your child is important, and as Lerman says, "There are great charter, private and public schools… and there are lousy charter, private and public schools. A parent should definitely not decide based solely on [the type] of school."

Lerman suggests parents consider the following six factors in making a choice.

1. Your child

Choose the school that best fits your child -- not you! Think about your child: Does he like structure or independence? Is he particularly academically, artistically or athletically inclined?

What type of learner is your child? >>

2. Feeling, tone/environment

During your visit to the school, how did you feel? Is it clean? Does it feel safe? Do both students and teachers seem happy? Are children actively engaged, or are they sitting at their desks, doing worksheets? Is current student work displayed in the halls?

3. Administrative history

Generally, a school shouldn't have had more than two principals over the past six years. Leadership continuity is important to a school. If there have been more, ask why. It could be a valid reason that doesn't reflect negatively on the school, such as illness, a move for a spouse's job, etc.

4. Academic history

Check your state department of education's website for a "report card" on the school. Compare the past several years to see whether the school is improving, declining or staying consistent.

5. Comprehensive programming

Does the school offer programs in art, physical education, music, etc.? If the school is lacking in these areas, parents will need to make up for the lack outside of school.

6. Parental involvement

How involved are parents? An active parent group helps ensure that the school responds to students' needs.

Take the time to research and carefully consider your school options, and as Lerman recommends, "Plan purposefully for your child's education."

5 Ways to become an involved parent >>

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