Lately, there has been a lot of talk about charter schools — billionaires fund them; presidential candidates want to expand them — but what, exactly, are they? And, more importantly, should you send your kid to one?

Charter schools are vast and complex, but essentially they’re free, public schools that are independently operated and managed. That means while they can focus on specific subjects (such as STEM or the performing arts), or employ alternative classroom methods (such as Montessori), they have to adhere to certain district-wide requirements.

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“The premise for charter schools is autonomy in exchange for accountability,” says DawnLynne Kacer, executive director of the Charter Schools Office in Philadelphia.

For example, she explains, charter schools in Pennsylvania need to have their students take the standard state-assessment tests that all traditional public school students do — and achieve certain scores.

“What the charter law says is: however you get to academic success is your choice — as long as you're maintaining the health and safety of students and not violating their civil rights,” says Kacer. “But we are going to evaluate you based on your performance on the state tests.”

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And they’re increasingly popular. There are about 100 charter schools in the Philadelphia system. About 64,000 students are enrolled in these institutions — about double the amount since 2007 — making up 30 percent of all Philly public-school students, including those in magnet schools. Furthermore, 85 percent of these schools having waiting lists, sometimes with 1,000 or more students (in those cases, schools hold lotteries to determine enrollment).

So, with all the competition to get in — and the dizzying variety of charter schools there are to choose from — how do you know when the hassle is worth it, or if charter schools are even right for your kid, and which ones she should be applying to anyway? Kacer demystifies the process for us.

Know your child

“Any student could benefit from a charter program — it’s about finding the right one for your particular student,” says Kacer. Figure out your kids interests or learning habits, and whether those will be met in a traditional school. Are they self-directed learners, do they learn more through action than through lecture, do they want a school with advanced music programs or one focused on mathematics? Then, look at a variety of school to find the ones with educational models that would compliment those needs and passions.

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Location, location, location

Charter schools are dispersed throughout Philadelphia, and while some do need to admit a certain percentage of students from the immediate surrounding area, parents can send their kid to pretty much any part of the city to school. “But, if you have a younger student — especially grades K through 2, or K through 5 — you probably don’t want them to travel so far to go to school,” says Kacer. “We have a directory of charter schools that organizes them by region of the city — that way you can start narrowing down your choices by geography.” If there’s a school that fits your child’s interests and wants that’s farther away — or if you can’t get a seat in the charter school closest to you — then inquire about bussing or other modes of transportation available.

Do your research

Of course, you’ll want to attend an open house or take a tour of whatever schools pique your interest. “And just like selecting a district-operated school, we would encourage them to reach out to their network of friends and neighbors and peers and learn more about the schools from word of mouth and what the experience of current parents is,” recommends Kacer. Because charter schools operate independently of the rest of Philadelphia’s public institutions, even such basic things as what time the school day starts, the length of the school year, whether students are required to attend a Saturday or Summer Academy, what Advanced Placement courses are available and whether there are tutoring and support services for students could differ wildly.

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“Charter schools they tend to have their own culture,” says Kacer. “They have their own code of ethics and core values that can lead them to focus on different things, so we want to make sure that parents and families have all the information they need in order to make the right decision.”

Apply to multiple schools

Yeah, those dreaded waiting lists mean that if you find a few schools that suit your child’s needs, apply to ALL of them. “State law says any charter school that receives more applications for a grade than it has seats has to hold a lottery,” says Kacer. “So putting in an application by no means means that you are guaranteed a seat.” (The one difference in Philly is with the so-called Renaissance Charter Schools, which have taken over various neighborhood district schools and take every applicant in the order they receive them.) “But for the vast majority of our charter schools, I think it’s important that parents and families know that they are chosen by lottery so I would absolutely encourage them to apply to more than one.”

When to apply: Each charter school has its own application timeline and process, says Kacer, and it’s different from the school district’s enrollment window. “Many charter schools will not even be reviewing their applications until January; some charter schools take applications year-round. So we encourage parents and families to reach out to the school and find out when those are.”