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Charter School vs. Public School: Everything You Need to Know

By Cece Gilmore

Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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Reviewed by Cari Shultz

Cari Schultz is an Educational Review Board Advisor at Scholarships360, where she reviews content featured on the site. For over 20 years, Cari has worked in college admissions (Baldwin Wallace University, The Ohio State University, University of Kentucky) and as a college counselor (Columbus School for Girls).

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Edited by Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Updated: February 6th, 2024
Charter School vs. Public School: Everything You Need to Know

Everyone knows that charter schools and public schools are not the same. However, did you know that all charter schools are public schools, but not all public schools are charter schools? Therefore, it can get quite confusing trying to figure out how exactly charter schools differ from public schools. If you are curious about the difference between charter and public school, keep reading our guide about charter schools vs public schools. 

How are charter schools and public schools similar? 

Before detailing how charter schools differ from public schools, it is important to highlight their similarities. Many people confuse charter schools with public schools because of their one main similarity–both are publicly funded. 

Charter schools and public schools are both tuition-free institutions that are paid for by taxpayers and therefore open to all students regardless of their economic status. This means they are both educational institutions that are available to the public to attend free of tuition. However, this is where their similarities end. 

How are charter schools and public schools different? 


Charter schools offer a different curriculum than public schools. Charter schools are a type of school that operates under a charter or legislative contract. This means that a group or organization holds charter schools accountable for upholding the standards found in their charter.

Therefore, charter schools enjoy a lot of freedom in their curriculum, which allows every charter school to teach differently! Some charter schools may focus on college prep while others may focus on following the Montessori curriculum.

In contrast, public schools have to follow any curriculum regulations set up by their state. Meaning, they have a strict curriculum that they must follow that is consistent from public school to public school. 

Related: Top scholarships for middle school students

State laws

Charter schools operate under their charter which makes them immune to state laws and regulations. This means that they do not have to abide by state regulations on learning. 

For example, many of the state-wide COVID-19 mask mandates were not applicable at charter schools. Rather, it was up to the charter school itself to decide what restrictions they would put into place. The state could not do anything about enforcing any regulations. 

In contrast, public schools have to follow state rules and regulations. They do not act independently and must follow the same regulations as all public schools within their state. 


Charter schools and public schools both offer enrollment that is available and free to the general public. However, charter schools typically have a capped admission, which means they may have to turn to a lottery system to fairly admit students into their schools. In addition, students do not have to be from the same town or county to attend a charter school. They accept students from a larger  area since they aren’t limited to school district boundaries like public schools. 

Also see: Charter schools vs. private schools


Although both charter and public schools receive funding from taxpayers, there are some differences between the way they both receive additional funding. 

A charter school’s funding can change drastically from state to state. Therefore, in addition to the public funding they receive, they typically use additional private funding. These funds can include donations from organizations, businesses, parents and more. 

In contrast, public schools typically only receive and utilize funds from the public or their town budget. 

Also see: What is the SSAT?

Charter schools vs public schools 

Diagram illustrating the differences and similarities of charter schools vs public schools
Illustration of the similarities and differences between public and charter schools

Frequently asked questions about charter schools vs. public schools:

Do charter schools charge tuition?

No, they do not. Charter schools are basically tuition-free public schools.

Are charter schools better than public schools?

This depends on funding, resources, teachers, parents, and the students themselves. A study by Harvard and Stanford researchers found that low-income and African Americans had significant educational gains when attending charter schools in comparison to students who attended the public schools in the same communities. A 2023 study by the  Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that charter schools are now outpacing traditional public schools in math and reading achievement. Researchers analyzed data from standardized testing data from 6,200 charter schools (involving 1.8 million students) for the study.  

Some question whether adult involvement is one of the driving forces for students outperforming their public school peers. Students usually need a parent or caregiver to do the paperwork to enroll and keep them enrolled in charter schools.

How many students are enrolled in charter schools in the USA?

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are roughly 4 million students enrolled in 7,800+ charter schools across the country.

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