The over-simplified difference between traditional public schools (as we usually think of them) and charter schools is that charter schools are not controlled by the local school district. Typically that means charter schools have fewer rules and regulations – some of which affect what goes on in the classroom.

Charter schools do, however, receive public tax dollars, and are controlled by each state. So there is plenty of accountability. And what is probably the most important difference affecting all teachers – not just new teachers – charter schools are generally not unionized. That does not mean teachers in charter schools can’t belong to a union. It just means that the many rules imposed by laborious district-union contract negotiations typically don’t affect charter schools.


That was a mouthful. And what does it have to do with aspiring teachers?

The simple answer is that it may have nothing to do with what type of school you want to teach at. Or it may have a great deal to do with the choices you make. That’s because different schools – not just different types of schools – have different atmospheres, different pedagogical approaches, different student demographics, different resources, different…. Well, you get the picture.

OK, let’s agree that it is a gross oversimplification to say that there are three different types of schools – public, private, and charter. Despite that oversimplification, that three-group distinction is a perfectly reasonable place to start thinking about the choices you have.

District Public Schools Predominate

Let’s take a 30,000-foot view of education in America.

There are about 50 million children in K-12 public schools in America; and about 5 million more kids in private schools. Of the 50 million in public schools, about 2.6 million of those attend charter schools. Charter school enrollment is growing very quickly – it has doubled in the last six years – and private school enrollment has shrunk a bit during the same period.

In terms of schools themselves, there are about 13,500 public school districts in America accounting for about 98,000 schools. There are about 33,000 private schools, and some 6.600 charter schools.

There are about 3.4 million teachers teaching in public schools; and about 490,000 teaching in private schools.

The obvious distinction you can infer from all these numbers is that public schools are generally larger than either private or charter schools. For some people, size matters. For others, school size – as opposed to class size – isn’t a major concern.

So, to state the obvious: most schools, most students, and thus most teaching positions exist in the traditional district-controlled public school sector.

Private Schools

There are three basic types of private schools:

  • Catholic schools: – which comprise about 30% of the total number of private schools
  • Other religious schools: which comprise about 50%; and
  • Nonsectarian: which comprise about 20% of the total private schools.

Because Catholic schools tend to be a little larger, they are home to nearly 50% of students who attend private schools. And nonsectarian private schools, with smaller classes, employ a slightly disproportionately larger number of teachers.

There are two important things to be aware of about teaching in private schools.


  • Private schools often do not require teachers to have state certifications or licenses. That is not always the case – states vary; and
  • Private schools often pay less than public schools.

Importantly, because private schools do not have to accept everyone who applies – and because they have far fewer publicly mandated protections – private schools are usually far quicker to expel students who have behavior problems.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are in the news a great deal; in part because they are politically controversial, and in part because in some cities, they are out-performing traditional district-public schools.

Charter schools are a very new phenomenon. The first charter schools opened in 1992. They grew out of a desire – by parents, teachers, and some policymakers – to allow schools to be more innovative. That, the developers believed, would lead to better student outcomes, often for the most underprivileged kids in the most under-resourced areas. There are many different models, organizers, and teaching philosophies driving charter schools. But they all share three things: 1. Admission is open to all students 2. They do not charge tuition 3. They do not have special entrance requirements

Charter schools are controversial because they generally operate outside both district control and union-mandated work rules. As a result, they are often opposed by the teachers’ unions and the politicians who are aligned with those unions.

You can get good information about charter schools here.

The salaries paid at charter schools can be pegged to the local district-public schools; or they can be different. Similarly, the need for certification differs from school to school.

Some Final Thoughts

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about the differences in teaching at a public school versus a private school versus a charter school. That temptation can also be very misleading. Yes, many charter schools deserve a reputation for innovation; but it is not true of all charters. And yes, many private schools benefit from large endowments and superb resources. But many do not. And if we hear one more bad joke about Nuns in Catholic schools, we might scream. But sometimes stereotypes are based on a grain of truth.

So the bottom line is:

When you start to think seriously about where you might want to teach, do lots of homework. Talk to people who actually teach in the type of school – and preferably the actual school – you are interested in. If possible, visit schools, lots of them, so that you can see the huge variety of environments, and figure out where you’d be happiest.

Steve Cohen

Steve Cohen is an attorney and author in New York. He is the co-author of the best- selling Getting In!, Getting to the Right Job, the award-winning Book-of the-Month Club selection Learn-to- Read Treasure Hunts, and four other highly regarded (but not best-selling) books. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, City Journal, and the Observer; and often writes about education. He co-chaired the Clinton White House literacy task force Prescription for Reading Partnership, and served on the Board of Directors of Reach Out and Read and the United States Naval Institute. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, received his AB from Brown University and his JD cum laude from New York Law School.