It is interesting to hear of experiences in a variety of charter schools. However, it is important to recognize that there is a huge variety of charter schools, and that they vary according to the particular state's legislation governing charter schools, and according to the individual charter.
Nationwide, charter school legislation has evolved primarily to accomplish the following purposes: to provide greater breadth of educational options for families, to motivate improvement in public schools by creating greater competition, and last, but not least, to provide states with a way of avoiding the rising costs of building and maintaining school buildings and facilities (Most charter schools provide their own buildings and facilities).
I am a teacher in a charter school in Arizona that happens to be a Montessori school. Arizona has some of the most liberal charter legislation in the country, and is one of the states with the most charter schools. Here, as everywhere else, parents must do their homework in choosing the right school for their child. There are both "bad" and "good" charter schools. Parents need to review the charter, visit the school, interview the staff, read the handbook, observe classes, talk to other parents, and determine the fit for their child. There are definitely tradeoffs. Sometimes they're worth it, and sometimes they're not. It depends on the individual family and child. It pays to educate yourself. "The price of freedom is responsibity."
The only absolutely common characteristics among charter schools are:
1) They are publicly funded. In other words, they do not charge tuition. (Some states allow charter schools to supplement their funding with school fund raising and special fees).
2) They have had their charter application reviewed, approved, and on file with the state in which the school is located. Requirements and governance vary from state to state.
3) They are legally bound to abide by their state approved charter. (These may be reviewed by contacting the state agency that oversees charter schools.)
4) Since most states accept federal funds to aid in education funding, and therefore charter schools are also funded in part by federal funds, they are required to abide by all federal mandates such as antidiscrimination policies, No Child Left Behind requirements, special education policies, and state testing guidelines. (Utah recently withdrew from accepting federal funds in order to opt out of the No Child Left Behind requirements.)
Beyond the above, very little is uniform in charter schools. Mission, goals, philosophy of education, teacher requirements and methods, admission policies, administrative procedures and polices, discipline policies, governing structures, as well as everything else varies greatly from one charter school to another.
Charter school legislation is providing families with many more educaitonal options for their children than was available even twenty years ago. But, as I said, in order to benefit optimally from the huge increase in choice, parents should act as educated consumers and do their homework.