AUGUSTA – Today, 1.7 million students attend 5,400 charter schools in 40 states, and enrollments continue to grow.

As the Maine Legislature considers legislation this week and next to add Maine to the list of states giving students and their families a choice in education, it is as instructive to know what charter schools are not, as much as what they are.

• Charter schools are not private schools. Charter schools are public schools that are simply governed and managed in a way that is different than conventional public schools.

• Charter schools are not religious schools. The bill before the Legislature clearly states that “a public charter school may not engage in any religious practices in its educational program, admissions or employment policies or operations.”

• Charter schools are not exclusionary or elitist. Charter schools must accept all applicants for whom they have space.

While they may specialize or have a specific focus, they may not discriminate against certain types of students, may not charge tuition, may not use entrance exams or otherwise bar entry to students, and must use a lottery system to fill slots if they have too many applicants.

The legislation also requires that charter schools produce a plan to meet the transportation needs of students, in order to assure that all students are able to have access to charter schools. Indeed, charter schools today serve a more diverse population than conventional public schools.

Nationally, more than 60 percent of students served by charter schools are nonwhite, compared to just over 40 percent of the students in conventional public schools.

Forty-three percent of charter school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared to only 40 percent in the nation’s traditional public schools.

Charter schools also serve about the same percentage of special education students as conventional public schools, and a quarter of all charter schools are not in cities or suburbs, but in the more rural areas of the nation.

Why are charter schools so popular with families? Because charter schools offer students and families what we all want in so many other aspects of our lives, which is options. It is student and family choice that brings accountability to public charter schools.

Remember, no child can be required to attend a charter school — they are public schools of choice.

If charter schools do not succeed in meeting the educational needs of students, the schools close. That is a degree of accountability that far exceeds the accountability measures we have in place for conventional public schools.

Do charter schools drain funding from conventional public schools, as is often asserted?

Under the law, money would indeed follow the student from his or her local school district to the charter school, but only if the student and his or her family make the choice to leave — if they decide that the charter school better meets their educational needs.

In this example, then, the money is being spent to buy students the education that best meets their needs, which is precisely what we should want as a matter of public policy.

The vast majority of Maine students will continue to attend the public schools we have today, and part of the solution is giving those schools more flexibility to be innovative, too.

But I believe it’s time to give Maine parents and students the options that are available in almost every other state: school choice that includes charter schools.

They are not a silver bullet that will solve all of our education problems.

But they are a promising reform that will give educators a model of schooling to work with that may inspire them to be more innovative.

That may improve student outcomes for the students that attend them.