A Quick Introduction to the World of Charter Schools

[Map: charter schools percentage by state]
Percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools, by state, 2014 (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)

Invented fewer than 30 years ago, charter schools have grown rapidly to the point where 1 in 15 U.S. K–12 students attends a charter school. What’s different about these schools, and how do they work? Here are 11 facts about charters that may be helpful to you as you consider whether a charter school might make sense for your child.

  1. A public charter school is a publicly funded school that is governed by an organization under a contract (or “charter”) with a state, district, or other entity (“authorizer”). Educators who were frustrated with school district bureaucracies began discussing the charter school idea in the 1970s and ’80s; the original idea was to free teachers and parents from regulations andoversight that can stifle innovation. The first charter school was created in Minnesota in 1991. Like district public schools, charter schools are always free to families.
  2. Charter schools are exempt from some of the rules and regulations that govern district schools, such as labor union collective bargaining requirements. In return for flexibility and autonomy, each charter school promises to meet accountability standards outlined in their charter document and approved by their authorizer.1
  3. There are about 7,000 charter schools in the U.S., serving a total of 3.2 million students, or 6% of public school students. Six states enroll 10% or more of their students in charter schools, while seven states do not allow charters. Between a quarter and a third of charter schools are operated by a charter management organization (CMO), an organization that runs multiple charter schools.2
  4. Charter schools are periodically reviewed by their authorizer and may be closed if they are not financially healthy or meeting their accountability goals. Some authorizers, such as the District of Columbia Charter School Board, are quite strict and regularly close charter schools that do not post strong results. Other authorizers, including some in Michigan and Nevada, have been lax and have allowed poorly performing charter schools to continue to operate.3
  5. In general, charter schools must admit children through a lottery, giving all applicants an opportunity to be admitted. However, some cities or states allow preferences for certain groups of students. For example, charters in some states are allowed to reserve a certain percentage of seats for low-income students. A few cities, such as New Orleans and Denver, have integrated student assignment systems, enabling families to express their preference among district and charter schools using one application.
  6. Charter schools are in high demand. Recent surveys show that about 16% of parents would like to send their child to a public charter school, compared to the 6% who actually do. The difference is likely due to location and capacity issues — some parents don’t live near charter schools and others are not selected for admission.4
  7. About 15% of charter schools are operated by for-profit entities. This number varies dramatically among states. In Michigan, more than 70% of charter schools are for-profit, while other states, like Washington, prohibit for-profit charters. Academic achievement at for-profit charter schools tends to be lower than at nonprofit charters.5
  8. On average, charter schools enroll similar percentages of low-income and students of color as nearby district schools. However, charter schools enroll fewer special education students than nearby district schools.6
  9. Considering the nation as a whole, the test performance of students in charter schools differs little from the test performance of students in district public schools. This average result masks major variations, however. Studies show that students in some charter schools learn much more than students in nearby district schools, while students in other charters learn substantially less than their district peers.7
  10. Charter schools are sometimes innovative, but not necessarily in obvious ways. Several studies have found that charters are not more innovative than district schools when it comes to trying out new instructional models or techniques. However, other studies have shown that some charters use their management flexibility to implement innovative administrative structures, such as different teacher training or development processes than neighboring district schools have.8
  11. The typical charter school spends less per student than the typical district school. Exact comparisons are difficult however, because districts sometimes provide more services (such as transportation) than charters, and charters often have access to more grant funds.9

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A Quick Introduction to the World of Charter Schools
  1. National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: Charter Schools.
  2. Overall charter enrollment numbers from Rebecca David and Kevin Hesla, Estimated Public Charter School Enrollment, 2017–2018, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. State breakdown and map from the National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Facts: Charter Schools. CMO stats from Charter Management Organizations 2017, CREDO.
  3. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, while more than 300 new charter schools opened their doors for the 2017–18 school year, 238 — nearly as many — ceased operation. See Estimated Public Charter School Enrollment, 2017–2018 for details.
  4. The 49th Annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools by Phi Delta Kappan and 2017 Schooling in America Survey by EdChoice.
  5. Charter School FAQ, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; Jennifer Dixon, Other states stricter than Michigan on charters, some ban for-profits, Detroit Free Press.
  6. Nat Malkus, A Different Kind of Charter Diversity, opinion piece in U.S. News and World Report, August 2016.
  7. Charter Schools in Perspective, Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation.
  8. Charter Schools in Perspective, Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation.
  9. Charter Schools in Perspective, Public Agenda and the Spencer Foundation.