Charters Schools, Vouchers Schools, Virtual Schools: What is a Public School?

When most of us were kids, going to school meant two options if we lived in the U.S. The first option was going to the local public school. The second option was private school. Within those two options, there were just a few variations. For example, for some, especially those who lived on the east or west coast, private school options could include boarding school. For those in the Midwest, the private option often meant a parochial school. For those of us who went to public schools, it usually meant going to a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in the community, probably in your neighborhood.

Whether you went to a public or private school, a bright line differentiated the schools. That is not true as much now, as the line between public and private schools is blurry. To understand the educational marketplace, it is important to understand what a modern public school is in this era of charters, vouchers, and virtual schools. In short, the very definition of a public school is changing.

In this article, I review the most common forms of public education, focusing on the new forms of public education: charter and voucher schools.

Please keep in mind that definitions differ from state to state and explaining the interstate differences in the types of public schools would be confusing. Therefore, I will speak from the perspective of Wisconsin, a state where many public school variations were created. Please note that I am going to generalize in order to cover a lot of ground without having to double back and explain specific state-level policies. I will also do my best to avoid political landmines in explaining the different school types, and I will avoid going into detail about educational outcomes. Both of these items are the subjects of future posts.

With that, let’s start with the easiest and most-recognized type of school, the traditional public school.

Traditional Public Schools: If you attended public school as a child, you have a sense of what we mean when we refer to a “traditional public school.” These are the neighborhood school buildings that look very much like the schools many of us attended. Children are entitled to a free education in every state in the country. For most people in the U.S., if a private school option isn’t selected, then the default option is the traditional public school.

In the U.S., public schools must enroll all children, including those with disabilities. Moreover, public schools are required to do so at no cost to the child’s family. Traditional public schools require that each teacher have a state-issued license that necessitates a four-year degree. Public schools most often have an elected school board.

Voucher Schools: A voucher school is a private school located in a state where the law allows the state to issue parents a voucher, essentially paperwork that entitles a child to an education at a private school. Voucher schools can be religious schools, and, depending on the state, payment is made from the state or local government (or local school district) to the private voucher school.

The first voucher program was established in Milwaukee in 1991. That program, and others that followed in other states, was designed to give low-income families more school options. Today, 12 states and the District of Colombia have voucher systems that provide services for more than just low-income families. These states are Arizona, Colorado, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

It is worth noting that several of those and other states have tax-credit programs that partially subsidize private schooling.

In most cases, a voucher school is an existing private school, often a parochial school, that enrolls both voucher students and tuition-paying students.

I want to stop here and answer a common question about voucher schools: “How can a private religious school receive government money? Doesn’t this violate the Establishment Clause?” In short, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled for voucher schools.

Voucher schools generally have tremendous flexibility in how they educate children and are often (but not always) not required to subscribe to state standards, participate in state testing programs, or hire teachers with the same educational credentials or licenses as required by public schools.

For these reasons, we are careful to note that while voucher schools are not public schools, they are publicly funded schools. Voucher schools have received a lot of attention over the last two decades, and the politics surrounding them is often intense.

Charter Schools: Charter schools are broad categories of schools that differ significantly from state to state. Here is how the National Charter School Resource Center defines a charter school:

Charter schools are public schools operating under a “charter,” essentially a contract entered into between the school and its authorizing agency. In addition to allowing the school to open, the charter allows the school with significant operational autonomy to pursue specific educational objectives. The autonomy granted under the charter agreement allows the school considerable decision-making authority over key matters of curriculum, personnel, and budget. Charter schools are often not a part of states’ current districts and, therefore, have few if any zoning limitations. Therefore, students attend charter schools by the choice of their parents or guardians rather than by assignment to a school district.

Again, charter schools fall into broad categories. In Wisconsin, for example, there are two significantly different types of charter schools. There are charter schools that operate under a charter relationship with a local school district — and often share services, and in some cases, even staff, with the district — and there are independent charter schools which are created by individuals or organizations outside the school district.

Educational leaders and others who know education well differ in their support of charter schools. For example, in Wisconsin, independent charter schools are funded so that money which goes to those schools is taken from every traditional public school in the state. This funding process creates great animosity between independent charter schools and traditional public school operators and has led to considerable political discord.

For their part, charter schools, unlike publicly funded voucher schools, are public schools, at least in a technical sense, even if an outside vendor runs them.

Virtual Schools: Virtual Schools, that is, schools that offer students education entirely through the Internet, is also a very broad K-12 education category. While there are several private virtual school providers, a virtual school can also be a public school. In Wisconsin, for example, the state allows for the creation of charter schools that offer instruction entirely online. This was later supported by the Wisconsin courts. In this situation, the child who attends a virtual charter school is attending a public school even if the student never sets foot in a public school building.

I hope this quick overview provides you with a general sense of the types of public schools and publicly funded schools. As always, we would love to hear from you if you have questions.

Joe Donovan is the principal of Forward Advisors, a national private equity consulting firm that specializes in the K-12 educational marketplace. Joe can be reached at or at (800) 393–5283.