TSS Blog

What are Charter Schools? Public. Free. Open to All

What are Charter Schools?

A charter school is a public school that operates as a school of choice. Charter schools commit to obtaining specific educational objectives in return for a charter to operate a school. Charter schools are exempt from significant state or local regulations related to operation and management but otherwise adhere to regulations of public schools.

For example, charters schools cannot charge tuition or be affiliated with religious institutions. Charter schools are also autonomous in design, school culture, curriculum, and new systems to meet the needs of students. Some of the advantages of a charter school are fewer students overall, smaller class sizes, and nontraditional ways of learning.

Difference between public charter school and traditional public school

Rather than being part of a public school district, which dictates curriculum and standards in all schools, charters operate autonomously through individual agreements, or charters, with state or local governments that dictate rules and performance standards. Some charter schools may focus on college prep, some follow a Montessori curriculum, and others integrate the arts into each subject. Most charter schools are in urban areas, but there are charter schools in suburban and rural areas as well. Some charter schools require uniforms, others have longer school days, and some teach their entire curriculum in two languages. The possibilities are endless, but charter schools aim to provide a range of options so that parents can choose the school that best fits their child.

Tennessee Charter Schools Statistics

The legislature established access to over 115 public charter schools in Tennessee so that all children in the state can access innovative, high-quality public schools regardless of their zip code. There are more than 44,000 students enrolled in public charter schools throughout the state. In 2002, the Tennessee Public Charter School Act was established, and a new era of innovation in education began in Tennessee. Immediately after the first charter school in Tennessee was born, Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE). The school serves over 600 students in grades 6-12 and has a STEM-focused curriculum that centers lessons on science, technology, engineering, and math.

Shelby County continues to host the state’s most prominent public charter school sector. Parents demand high-quality public-school options, and community engagement has increased the growth. Shelby County is home to more than 51 charter schools ranging in elementary, middle, and high, with over 16,684 students enrolled. African American students make up most of the population of charter schools in Shelby County, with about 82 percent, 17 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent of students from White, Asian, American Indian, and other populations.

Additional Resources

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools



Tennessee Charter School Center



Memphis Shelby County Schools



National Charter School Resource Center



Tennessee Public Charter School Commission


TSS Blog

Rocketship Northeast did not get a fair hearing




Last week, the Metro Nashville Public School Board voted against the interests of families who want the option of a high-quality public educational choice by denying the reauthorization of Rocketship... more
learn more

TSS Blog

School choice is a big umbrella, let’s make som...




This week, Governor Bill Lee is unveiling his plan for a statewide expansion of the 2019 Education Savings Account (ESA) pilot program to offer publicly funded scholarships to eligible students... more
learn more

TSS Blog

Workforce partnerships light the spark to impro...




Recent conversation around school performance in Tennessee has been dominated by student growth and achievement measures  This is understandable, as both provide valuable insight for school... more
learn more