We have never been wholehearted supporters of charter schools. By design, they siphon funds from public schools and undermine an educational system that a democracy should want to nurture.

Do charter schools provide a better education? The studies range widely on that question (and seem to end up with conclusions that depend on whether the study's authors or those paying for the study are supporters or critics of public education).

Bottom line: Some charter schools work; some don't. Some provide a better education; some don't.

But it is undeniable that there are some charter-school success stories - and one is clearly the 14-year-old Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point.

Charter Tech opened up in leased space in 1999, moved to its current site in a 33,000-square-foot building it now owns in 2002, and just broke ground for an 8,700-square-foot, eight-classroom addition expected to open in September. The expansion will allow Charter Tech to expand from 300 students to its maximum allowed enrollment of 400.

As with all charter schools, Charter Tech is open to all. If there are more applicants than space allows, a lottery is used to determine who attends. Admission is free - students' home districts are required to provide the funding for each of their students who attend the charter school.

And while Charter Tech students must meet the same academic requirements as public-school students, they also are required to select a major from one of five areas - instrumental music, voice, dance, musical theater or TV/film/animation. Auditions are not required, but obviously students must have a passion for the arts.

The success of Charter Tech - and what makes it less of an affront to public education, in our opinion - has much to do with the fact that it is providing something students can't get elsewhere. It occupies a specialty niche.

Not all Charter Tech students will go on to professional careers in the arts. But that isn't really the point. As school founder Jerry Klause said, "We weren't trying to change the world - just a little piece of it. We wanted to give those 'square peg' kids a square hole."

That's a worthwhile goal - and something public schools don't have the freedom to do very well. Charter Tech is clearly filling a need in the community and has become a valued institution in South Jersey.