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Charter School vs. Public School: Differences in Teaching Environments

December 22, 2020

Teachers are a key factor influencing student achievement, with two to three times more impact on student reading and math test performance than other in-school factors, according to research organization RAND Corporation. As such, leaders in education must pay close attention to cultivating teaching environments that support educators in both charter and public schools.

Teaching environments in charter schools vs. public schools differ, and educators should examine the characteristics that influence those differences.

Charter School vs. Public School Characteristics

Charter schools and public schools have many commonalities. Both provide tuition-free education to students, from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Both rely on local, state, and/or federal funding. Both also participate in state testing and accountability programs. Despite these similarities, many differences distinguish the two.


Though both charter and public schools must answer to governing bodies, charter schools are not accountable to governmental regulatory restrictions in the same ways that public schools are. When it comes to non-discrimination, health and safety, and school-year length, public schools and charter schools abide by the same rules. Beyond that, however, charter schools operate independently under contract with the organizations that authorized their individual charters.

Authorized charters outline specific educational objectives, but they can differ from those issued by local, state, or federal governments. For example, public schools can only hire certified teachers, whereas charter schools can choose to restrict hiring to certified applicants.

In addition to less governmental oversight, charter schools do not have the same requirements when it comes to transparency. While public schools must face public scrutiny of their finances, the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to charter schools.

This means charter school leaders and managers can meet privately and make decisions without outside input. In fact, the boards or private individuals who own and operate charter schools can be located far away and hire a different entity to run the school. Public schools do not have such autonomy; they must answer to the public. The elected school boards that run them cannot meet in private; they must go about their business in public.

Student Populations

Public schools must provide an education to all students. Charter schools, however, can shape their student populations by deciding which educational programs and services to offer. For example, charter schools can choose not to provide special needs programs. As such, schools without these programs will be unlikely to attract special needs students.

Public schools, on the other hand, must address any special needs that students have. If a public school cannot address a student’s special needs in-house, the district is financially obligated to meet those needs at a specialized facility.

Teaching Environments: Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Differences in regulations, transparency, and student populations can make a big impact on teaching environments. Though teaching environments vary greatly from school to school regardless of their type, some generalizations apply to charter schools vs. public schools.

The Charter School Teaching Environment

With fewer regulations to restrict them, charter schools can offer educators more flexibility in their approaches to teaching. This flexibility can apply to the curricula implemented, programs offered, and teaching styles employed. Additionally, with greater autonomy, charter school leaders have greater flexibility to make pedagogical changes when curricula or teaching methods prove inefficient or unproductive.

Innovation in Charter Schools

One benefit of charter schools is their potential for innovation. These innovations can give both teachers and students unique opportunities to teach, learn, and strive for excellence. For example, the Commonwealth Charter Academy, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, hosts a program that gives students hands-on experiences in an agricultural laboratory. The school’s 6,100-square-foot agriculture center includes aquaponics and hydroponics, produces 3,000 plants, and is home to hundreds of tilapia, koi, and prawn. The lab aims to give students job-ready skills and opportunities to learn outside of traditional school environments.

Challenges in Charter School Environments

The less regulated structure of charter schools can allow for unique learning environments for teachers and students, but it can also have a downside. Charter schools have a reputation for assigning heavier workloads to teachers, requiring them to work longer hours than public school teachers. This can lead to burnout and high turnover. High turnover harms student achievement and creates an unstable environment for teachers as well.

A recent analysis of charter schools by the Network for Public Education found that about a quarter of charter schools close within five years of opening their doors. Reports from the same organization describe fraud, waste, and mismanagement as reasons for the closures. Such high closure rates can prove disruptive to student learning and harm morale, increasing teacher attrition.

The Public School Teaching Environment

Public schools tend to attract more experienced and educated teachers than charter schools because they offer stability that charter schools often do not, including higher salaries and union membership. Collective bargaining rights can greatly affect a teaching environment by limiting workloads and guaranteeing salary increases, among other things.

Quality Control in Public Schools

Educators in public schools can expect certain consistencies in the teaching environment not always afforded to charter school educators. Governmental regulations and collective bargaining both offer public school teachers more consistency concerning issues that impact teaching environments. Classroom observations and evaluation, paperwork responsibilities, professional development committees, space, and workloads must follow specific guidelines, and when they don’t, teachers have recourse.

For example, in New York City, weekly teaching programs for public high school teachers must consist of:

  • No more than 25 teaching periods
  • Five preparation periods
  • Five professional periods
  • Five duty-free lunch periods

Additionally, New York City teachers also have a process to file grievances regarding their teacher programs if they believe they do not meet requirements. These types of controls help teachers balance their responsibilities and ensure they are not overloaded. Reasonable teacher workloads facilitate quality instruction. A process to address grievances empowers educators and can reduce turnover. The combination of quality instruction and less teacher turnover offers students continuity and a richer classroom experience.

Challenges in Public School Environments

Despite the advantages of public school teaching environments, they come with significant challenges. Public schools tend to fill to capacity, which often means larger class sizes and sometimes crowded school environments. Additionally, public school teachers must stick to government-approved curricula.

Tighter regulations and the increased emphasis on testing leave public school teachers with less and less influence over what they teach and how they teach it. These limits on professional freedoms, which for many suggest a lack of respect for their knowledge and judgment, can demoralize public school teachers. They also can diminish the teaching environment, stripping it of creativity and joy, harming teacher morale, and hurting student achievement.

For example, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute:

  • 71% of teachers say they lack considerable influence over what they teach.
  • 75% of teachers say they lack considerable influence over the instructional materials they use.

Become a Leader in Education by Earning Your Doctorate

Shaping productive teaching environments plays a key role in delivering an equitable education to all students. With the right expertise, educators can assess charter school vs. public school challenges and find solutions that address them.

Learn more about American University’s online EdD in Education Policy and Leadership program and how it equips educators with the knowledge to support thriving teaching environments.