by Padraig Shea, teacher and writer in Brooklyn


At Schools That Can, our mission is to expand quality urban education through collaboration among schools serving low-income populations, regardless of their governance or funding structures.

We coalesce public, charter, and private schools to share strategies that prepare students to succeed in the colleges and careers of their choice. More important than type of school, we work with schools that provide quality education to scholars, absent strict admissions and to students with more than 60 percent eligibility to receive free and reduced lunch.

Working across sectors, we frequently encounter misconceptions regarding each category of school, and offer this “glossary” of sorts as an unbiased description of the types of schools we serve.



Public district schools are the standard of the American public education system. When most people imagine “an American school,” they imagine a district school, at which any local family may walk into the office and enroll their children. For students, these schools provide free education and services to the community. Many teachers in district schools are part of the teachers’ union, and the local teachers’ contract typically determines their compensation based on experience and degrees. The contract also determines factors like the number of hours and days worked in a year. Public district schools receive funding from local government, usually per student from property taxes in their community.

Though most district schools operate with more standard curricula and schedules, there are increasing examples of nontraditional programs within traditional school districts. For instance, magnet schools offer special programs, like arts, science, and gifted programs, with admissions requirements. Other schools, like MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, operate partnerships with local colleges and companies to provide students access to college courses and internships before they graduate.


Public charter schools are a relatively new experiment in public education, but they have grown steadily in number across the nation since the first charters opened in Minnesota in 1991. Charters schools were created to serve as education innovation labs, testing out new solutions to address unmet needs within school districs. Ideally, they provide an immediate resolution for the community and inform future practices for other schools and districts.

Charter schools receive increased autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. Their charter–the document that dictates their policies–outlines academic goals and may call for alternative labor practices, extended calendars, and special themes or programs in order to meet those goals. A local authorizer (which may be the education department, a public college, or other commission) approves the initial charter and then, every few years, reviews it for renewal. If the school is not achieving its goals, it may be closed.

The vast majority of teachers in charter schools are not unionized, so schools and teachers negotiate compensation independently. For students, charters provide free education and services, although families often must enter a lottery to enroll. Like district schools, charters receive funding from local government, although the amount per pupil may differ. In addition, they have flexibility to raise supplemental funds. Many public charter schools are closely associated with the “education reform” movement.


Our country enjoys a broad spectrum of independent schools, relatively few of which reflect the stereotypes of exclusive private and parochial schools. All independent schools in STC’s network provide quality education to low-income student populations, including both faith-based and private schools.

STC’s independent schools charge a heavily subsidized tuition or nothing at all. With some exceptions, teachers in independent schools are not unionized, so schools and teachers negotiate compensation independently. Schools set their own schedules and calendars, and many in STC’s network have longer school days and school years. Some independent schools, like Cornelia Connelly Center in New York City, provide comprehensive supports – including financial support – to their graduates who attend college. Many religious schools are open to students of all faiths. As a non-public school, they are free to integrate additional curricular options, including religious classes.

Independent schools are not funded by the government, though some states provide vouchers to parents that can be used to pay private school tuition. Nonetheless, these schools are responsible for raising most if not all of their operating costs – through tuition, fundraising, and benefactors.


At Schools That Can, we believe the types of school–whether district, charter or independent–are less important than the kinds of school: Schools that can provide quality education to students of low-income backgrounds. Ultimately, educators in all these schools seek to provide underserved students with the best education possible.


So, we support collaboration across all sectors of schools who serve such populations. That’s what it means to be among Schools That Can.


Caveat emptor: Education is still by and large a state-run entity in the United States. As such, the particular programs and regulations dictating these schools may vary widely from one state to the next. This is meant for you as a basic primer; we encourage you to delve more deeply into the policies dictating school operations in your state.