Starting a charter school is for those who are passionate about providing unique, customizable, and diverse educational opportunities for students. But make no mistake—it is by no means a simple undertaking. Starting up a charter will take organization, time, and energy, so you’ll want to begin with a clear understanding of the journey.
In this article, you will find a detailed guide to the steps to starting a charter school, including:
- What research to do at the state level
- The time and energy required for planning and program design
- How to develop an objective for your school and write a mission statement
- Gathering a board of governance
- Building a budget, choosing a location, and making a charter petition
- The approval process
- Hiring teachers and staff
- Measuring progress
- Free additional charter school planning resources
Charter schools provide students with innovative approaches to teaching and learning, providing communities with different educational options for students within the public school system. Charter schools are public schools that are run independently from the local school district but are still required to follow and meet local and state academic standards. They are publicly funded by the states they operate in and must comply with regular performance reviews.
Here’s what to look into at the state level as you get started:
1. Check the legality of charter schools in your state. Because charter schools are funded by the states they operate in, each state has legislation to determine the legality of opening and operating a charter school. First, determine whether charter schools are permitted in your state.
As of January 2016, the majority of states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that allow charter schools to operate. The states in the U.S. that do not currently permit charter schools include:
- North Dakota
2. Check for capacity limits. Of the states that do permit charter schools, many put caps on how many charter schools can operate within that state. Depending on where you live, you may be ineligible to open a charter school due to capacity limits, even if charter schools are generally allowed in your state.
The states which currently do not have caps in place are:
- New Jersey
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
If you live in a state that is not listed, there may be limitations on how many charter schools may legally operate within the state. However, it is still possible that your state may not have reached its capacity. Search online for charter school laws in your state to see if you can start a charter school in your region.
3. Determine if new schools are allowed. In addition to setting limits on the number of charter schools permitted, some states have laws that set limits on the types of charter schools allowed. That means that there may be restrictions on new start-up schools, public school conversions, and/or virtual schools.
4. Visit your state’s Department of Education website. Because charter school laws vary so much from one state to another, it’s important to know your state’s specific guidelines, deadlines, and regulations. There is no single compendium, unfortunately, so you’ll need to learn about the particular forms, applications, and deadlines required in your state.
- You can search online for your state’s Department of Education website, or you can search for your state’s charter school application process.
- Pay close attention to all relevant deadlines as these will most likely be unique to charter schools in your state.
- Familiarize yourself all aspects of your state’s charter school legislation. Some states require the applicants to exhibit a working knowledge of their state’s legislated requirements, purpose, and objectives.
Planning and Designing Your Charter School
Once you’ve got the green light at the state level, it’s time to think through the particulars of your school. It’s time to start dreaming, but also stay realistic to ensure success. It will be important to stay true to your vision and to gather others to help you along the way.
1. Assess your level of commitment. Starting a charter school will assuredly take a lot of time and energy—and it will most certainly be frustrating at times. Before you begin the process, reflect on your ability to stick with the project—you’ll be attending meetings, learning new skills, taking risks, and working with a diverse range of people to bring your vision to life. It also won’t happen right away, so you’ll need to be in it for the long haul.
A few details to consider:
- You’ll need to put together a robust team to make your charter school happen. You’ll need people experienced in real estate, those with financial expertise, and others with strong backgrounds in operations/management skills, leadership abilities, and educational design.
- Planning for your charter school will most likely take at least a year—and may take considerably longer. You’ll also need time to build a new facility or modify an existing one, depending on where you decide to open your charter school. Will you still have the same passion and patience for this project in a year (or longer)?
2. Develop your dream. The main reason for starting a charter school should ultimately be to provide your community with an educational opportunity that does not currently exist. Think about what aspects of a well-rounded education are missing from current public school options—how could you address those needs with your potential charter school?
Here are some questions to think about:
- What could realistically be taught in the public school curriculum, but isn’t?
- You will have to stick to your state’s standards of education, of course, but what could be done differently while still adhering to those standards?
- One successful charter school concept in an area with a large population of Chinese families was to incorporate Mandarin Chinese language lessons into the curriculum. Can you think of similar ways to provide relevant academic opportunities for the students in your community?
3. Write a mission statement. Once you have a clear idea of your charter school’s concept, start drafting a mission statement. You’ll need to be able to outline your vision to your state’s Department of Education (or equivalent), so work on creating a clear, pragmatic mission and purpose.
- The mission statement should describe your charter school’s purpose as well as your goals/aspirations for the school (what you intend to accomplish).
- Ask yourself what the best, most ideal public school education would look like. Then start brainstorming a list of defining characteristics and use these to generate the basic components of your mission statement.
- Consider explicitly incorporating a set of core beliefs into your mission statement. This can help guide you as you craft your mission statement, and may be useful for future evaluations of your school’s performance.
- Your mission statement should be clear and concise. You’ll need to relate your school’s administrative decisions to its mission and core values, so the clearer and more specific you are, the easier it will be to put your mission into action.
- Here are tips for writing your school’s mission statement.
4. Establish your governance. Before you can start the paperwork to enact your idea for a charter school, you’ll need a board of governance. This is a vital part of any successful charter school, as approximately 27% of all new charter schools are disrupted by internal conflicts within the board.
You’ll need to decide both who is on the board and how that board will function.
- The people you select for your board should understand the mission you’ve outlined and they should be fully dedicated to that mission. Get to know the people you’re considering for your board and see if their values and beliefs align with yours (and your charter’s).
- Most successful charter school boards have between 7 and 11 members, where each member significantly contributes some specific skill set to the board. These skills include finance/accounting, real estate, facilities management, legal services, human resource services, fundraising and marketing, community partnerships, and academic programming.
- Think about where your own weaknesses lie (and be honest with your self-assessment), then look for potential board members who can strengthen your school board accordingly.
- Consider splitting your team up into sub-committees that can work on assigned aspects of research and planning based on the members’ areas of expertise.
- Don’t forget that the role of the board is to govern your charter school and not manage it. Governance involves creating goals for the school, setting metrics to measure the school’s process, evaluating the school, approving the budget, creating policies, engaging in fundraising, and enforcing local and state charter laws.
5. Set a budget. The budget will help determine how your money is spent within the charter school. The governing board members should have a considerable voice in determining the budget, both in terms of how to raise funds as well as how to use those funds.
You’ll want to:
- Keep your mission statement in mind as you develop your budget. Are you holding your future students’ best interests in mind at all times?
- Work with an accountant or financial planner to develop a budget proposal for the first year of operation, as well as a long-range budget plan that will cover the first three to five years of operation. You’ll also need a detailed cash-flow projection for every year of operation.
- Have your board review and approve the budget and projections you develop on an annual basis.
6. Choose a location. The facilities in which you build and operate your charter school could make or break your charter’s chances of success. It’s seldom as easy as finding a spot and signing the lease. Finding and securing a facility for a charter school often requires some degree of compromise and innovation.
- Try to search for potential facilities within a central location that will be convenient for your prospective students and their parents.
- Property that used to house a school may be an ideal location, but finding an old school building in good condition can be difficult. Some charters operate out of converted retail spaces, while others rely on multi-use facilities to share the space and resources with other schools or businesses.
- Of course, you won’t want to put a down payment on any property until you know that your charter application is accepted, but having a potential place lined up could help strengthen your application.
- Consider working with experienced charter school real estate experts and explore facilities finance options.
7. Develop your petition. In addition to a mission statement and board of governance, you’ll need to develop a charter petition. This functions similarly to a business plan for a prospective business.
It can span hundreds of pages and require extensive research including:
- Your vision and mission for the school, as well as the school’s curriculum design, hiring practices, predicted facilities/location, and communication structure.
- Research in both legal requirements and functional practices of successful charter schools. You can find some of this information online.
- Input from charter schools, both in your region and across the country. The board members at established charter schools can help guide you with their own experience and may be able to offer suggestions you would not have considered.
Opening Your School
You’ve done your research, developed your vision, and gathered your board members—now it’s time for the practical steps needed to open your school doors.
- Draft and submit a letter of intent. Depending on your state’s guidelines and requirements, you may need to write and submit a letter of intent. You may need to submit your materials to your local school district, your state’s Department of Education, or to your state’s Charter School Office (if such an office exists in your state). The letter of intent should outline the planning and design you’ve worked on thus far and should identify the board members you’ve chosen to establish and operate your proposed charter school.
A successful charter school letter of intent should include, but may not be limited to:
- applicant information
- founding group/board of directors, along with each individual’s role and qualifications
- proposal history (if relevant)
- the name of your proposed charter school
- the prospective location – not the address, but simply the school district your charter will fall in, and any specific neighborhood(s) you’ve identified as a promising location
- planned grades and estimated enrollment
- any partner organizations you’ve lined up
- your school’s mission statement
- an overview of how your school will live up to its mission statement
- the target population you hope your school will appeal to
- diversity initiatives for your charter school
- public outreach initiatives and community support for your proposed charter school
2. Wait for approval. Once your materials are submitted, you’ll need to wait for authorization to proceed with your school. Most charter schools are authorized by the local school district, but if the school district denies your application you can appeal that decision to the county, and then to the state.
Common reasons for a denied application include:
- an unsound educational program
- a concern over the petitioners’ inability to successfully implement the school program they’ve designed
- a failure to address the conditions or guidelines set out for charter schools in your town, county, or state
- a failure to meet the educational requirements of schools in your district, county, or state
3. Hire faculty and staff. If your charter school is approved, you’ll need teachers, administrators, and facility managers. You may want to consider alumni of alternative teaching programs like Teach for America, or turn to online job listings. As with board members, you’ll want to be sure you hire qualified people who are passionate about your school’s mission.
Here are some best practices when hiring teachers:
- Have teaching applicants teach a sample lesson as part of the interview process. This will give you a good look at how that applicant actually performs in the classroom.
- Follow up on all job references, and pay close attention to each candidate’s job history. Look for any dismissals and find out why that applicant was terminated from a position.
- Do a basic online search to see if each individual has a public social media account. This may give you some insight into the applicant’s personality and ethics.
- Work with local law enforcement to conduct a background check.
- Most new charter school startups have a high turnover rate. Do what you can to retain quality teachers, and if a teacher you hire isn’t working out, don’t wait five years before finding a replacement. Similarly, don’t feel hurt if your teachers don’t stick around for more than a year or two. Anticipate turnover from both your employees and from you and your board as the employers.
4. Open for enrollment. Once you’ve been approved for operations and you’ve hired a strong faculty and staff, you’re ready to open for enrollment. Remember that you may be bound to certain class size restrictions and other regulations, and always keep your charter school’s mission statement at the forefront of all operations. If you need help with enrollment marketing, consider partnering with experienced charter school marketers to support you.
5. Monitor progress at all levels. As you grow, you’ll want to monitor the progress of your school. Many education boards choose to work with an agency like Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). MAP can assess schools nationwide on a regular basis and provide you with a personalized assessment of your school’s ranking, your students’ progress, and your students’ potential for growth. These results are often delivered within 24 hours, allowing you to keep on top of your educators’ effectiveness and your students’ learning progress.
Getting You the Money, Resources, and Know-How
While the process may seem overwhelming, the community benefits of charter education are worth the time and effort. Carefully designed and mission-driven charter schools offer nourishing learning environments and greater diversity to students nationwide. What’s more, there are many resources to help those interested in starting charter schools.
Starting a Charter School? Here are 6 Things to Do During the Start-Up Phase
Congratulations—you’ve started your charter school! The start-up stage is exciting and full of potential. It’s common to feel overwhelmed during this phase, but learning from others can make all the difference. Charter schools fall within three main growth stages: start-up, growth, and sustainable maturity. These stages are defined by years in operation and the number […]
Building a Budget for Your Start-up Charter School
Starting and running a school is a challenging task, and ensuring financial stability requires careful planning and management. According to The Center for Education Reform, 42% of charter school failures within the first three years were due to finances, making it imperative to establish a solid budget from the outset. Read on to discover best […]
Charter School Growth Guide
Whether you’re just beginning the process of starting up a charter school, looking to expand, or trying to prioritize your next steps, our network of charter school experts can help with best practices and strategies for success at every stage of growth. All of the advice in this guide comes from experienced charter school leaders who have been where you are now—they understand what you’re facing and the pitfalls to avoid.Get the Guide