Plagued by a crumbling public school system, Philadelphia parents are facing tough decisions when it comes to their child’s education. With 86 charter schools to choose from in the city, the questions arise: Are charter schools a viable option? And, more importantly, what sets them apart from public schools?

“Charter schools are publicly funded and privately run,” says Maia Cucchiara, an associate professor of urban education at Temple University. “While public schools are run by a school district office, charter schools are independently run — sometimes by bigger organizations.”

Similar to public schools, charter schools are free, follow health and safety regulations and cannot discriminate against students based on race, gender or religion. Each charter school is authorized by the local board of education and holds its own board of trustees and administrative staff, equipped with the ability to hire teachers, set school schedules and design the academic program.

Unlike public schools, children must apply for admission. According to the  School District of Philadelphia, most are entered into a lottery that accepts students randomly, sometimes giving preferences based on location, previous schools, age and more. “Charter schools should be open citywide. If they’re relegated to one neighborhood,” says Cucchiara, “it’s more than likely that they reopened after failing as a public school.”

Charters are decentralized, allowing private sector actors to manage the school with a per-pupil allocation of public funds. The operative buzzword sparking the creation of charter schools is “freedom.”

“Most charters are free from teacher union agreements and contracts,” says  Rand Quinn, an assistant professor at the  University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Students and teachers are not assigned to a charter school, they must choose to take part.”

This system, in theory, deals with a troublesome public school problem of unmotivated faculty and staff.

“The underlying idea is that with market-like competition, excellent and innovative teachers and schools are rewarded,” says Quinn. “While substandard teachers and schools are weeded out, ultimately diversifying the types of schools available and improving school quality across the board.”

But this survival of the fittest design doesn’t always play out accordingly. Many Philly charters have closed in recent years due to this polarizing effect, sinking low among the competition until they’re completely under — drowning students and parents in the process.

“Some contend [it] leads to a two-tiered system of public schooling, with a small number of high-performing schools and a large number of underachieving schools,” Quinn says. “Moreover, choice-based systems are compromised in situations where parents are unaware of the full range of school options, do not fully participate or are unable to shuttle their child to and from a school outside their neighborhood.”

And while charter schools themselves are nonprofit, they can be run by for-profit private companies. Without the strict regulations of the public school system, funds can easily be misused and many Philly schools have experienced corruption in recent years.

“A lot of it speaks to capacity,” says Cucchiara. “They say there’s too much pressure in public schools to perform while charters are free from this oversight. But there are sometimes dishonest people in charters going unchecked. Public school rules and processes may be a headache, but they also serve and protect those schools.”

“There’s nothing special about a charter school,” she continues. “There’s no evidence that they’ll do better. Initially, they were conceived to be really high-performing and more innovative, but that doesn’t always play out.”

So … why bother with charter schools at all?

The existence of the “No Excuses” model comes into play at many charters. Built on the idea that all children can meet high academic standards, and should not be excused for academic failure, the model, which originated with the  Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network of schools, has since spread in charters throughout the country. With its strict behavioral and disciplinary code, rigorous college prep curriculum and strong academic focus, the model has generally helped boost academic performance when applied. In Philadelphia, all 21 of the Mastery Charter Schools have championed the No Excuses model with mixed reviews about the system’s effectiveness.

“No Excuses schools are marked by extensive use of measurable and unyielding goals, frequent testing [and] expectations of parental involvement,” says Quinn. “ The Promise Academy of the Harlem Children’s Zone was able to close the black-white achievement gap in elementary and middle school math and elementary ELA [using the model].”

While No Excuses isn’t the norm for all charters, the accountability held for students, parents, faculty and staff is unanimously incorporated since all charters are independently responsible for their own success. Parents should pay attention to what an individual school is doing versus making a decision under the umbrella of charter or public.

“Parents need to visit schools,” says Cucchiara. “There’s no substitute for learning something with your own two eyes. Some charter schools really do take license of the charter and do wonderful things that they couldn’t do within the public school system …When it happens, it’s fabulous.”