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The Appearance of Boutique Charters

By Net Assets posted 25 days ago

bullis charter school

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In a few affluent communities, charter schools that effectively function like taxpayer-supported independent schools are taking hold.

By James Palmieri

Many independent schools face increasing competition from free educational options, which usually include magnets, selective and well-funded public schools. Charter schools are not as commonly encountered in the shifting competition, but a certain type of suburban, boutique charter school may gain ground in coming years. What are these schools and what niche are they aiming to fill? And will they too become competitors for mission-fit students? Two case studies provide food for thought.

Case Study: Bullis Charter School

Bullis Charter School (BCS) is a public charter school in Silicon Valley, authorized by the Santa Clara County Board of Education and subject to the fiscal and programmatic oversight of state and county education systems. However, the school has independent school-like admissions practices, small student-to-teacher ratios, academic and co-curricular programming, and even an annual “giving” expectation. “Thanks to our incredible network of donors and volunteers, BCS is able to protect our small class sizes, attract the best and brightest educators, and maintain and expand the programs and learning opportunities that help our students excel,” states the BCS website.

For the lucky parents of admitted students, no tuition is paid. BCS is a taxpayer-funded, privately-run school. As the BCS website explains, “Charter schools are tuition-free public schools open to all California residents. Since BCS is a charter school, we are free to innovate and modify our program without the bureaucratic rules and outdated structure found in many traditional public schools. Public charter schools are created by parents, educators and communities to promote innovation in the classroom and offer parents another public school option to better meet their child’s specific needs.”

The question is if boutique charters like this one bring a new level of inequality to public education. While charter schools are often heralded for offering underprivileged children an alternative to failing U.S. districts, BCS gives an admissions edge to residents of Los Altos Hills, where household income and median home values greatly exceed state averages. Parents at a charter school cannot officially exclude eligible students from the admissions process or obligate private contributions within their “club,” but they can make any family who does not contribute financially or drains resources other ways feel uncomfortable enough to leave.

Case Study: Princeton Charter School

Princeton, New Jersey, is home to numerous independent day and boarding schools that serve a large portion of school aged children from local communities in addition to boarding students from around the globe. Princeton is also known for having an exceptionally strong local public district. Notably in Princeton the lowest poverty public school is Princeton Charter School (PCS).

PCS appears to be positioning itself as a publicly subsidized alternative to the elite private schools and not as a more broadly accessible charter alternative.

PCS appears to be positioning itself as a publicly subsidized alternative to the elite private schools and not as a more broadly accessible charter alternative. Admissions is selective, and in terms of demographics, students come from higher income families and have fewer special needs than other publics. What this means is that the parent population of PCS is effectively obligating the parents of much less advantaged children in Princeton, including parents of children with special education needs, to subsidize their preference to have a school more like the private day schools.

Thus far the urban charter school movement has impacted primarily urban parochial schools, resulting in mergers and closings across the country. But if state regulations allow for publicly funded schools like BCS and PCS to open and operate in this manner, they may disrupt any independent school market and further challenge enrollment strategies.

James Palmieri, Ed.D., is senior vice president at NBOA.

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