What are charter schools? How common are they, and whom do they serve?
A public charter school is a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract (or charter) with the state or jurisdiction. The charter exempts the school from certain state or local rules and regulations. In return for flexibility and autonomy, the charter school must meet the accountability standards outlined in its charter. A school's charter is reviewed periodically (typically every 3 to 5 years) by the group or jurisdiction that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the accountability standards are not met.
The first law allowing the establishment of charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991. As of school year 2013–14, charter school legislation had been passed in 42 states and the District of Columbia. The states in which charter school legislation had not been passed by that year were Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia. Despite legislative approval for charter schools in Mississippi and Washington, none were operating in these states in 2013–14.
Between school years 2003–04 and 2013–14, the percentage of all public schools that were public charter schools increased from 3.1 to 6.6 percent, and the total number of public charter schools increased from 3,000 to 6,500. In addition to increasing in number, charter schools have generally increased in enrollment size over the last decade. From 2003–04 to 2013–14, the percentages of charter schools with 300–499, 500–999, and 1,000 or more students each increased, while the percentage of charter schools with fewer than 300 students decreased. Similar patterns were observed from 2012–13 to 2013–14.
In school year 2013–14, California had the largest number of students enrolled in charter schools (513,400, representing 8 percent of total public school students in the state), and the District of Columbia had the highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (42 percent, representing 33,200 students). After the District of Columbia, Arizona had the next highest percentage (18 percent) of charter school enrollment as a percentage of total public school enrollment.
Between school years 2003–04 and 2013–14, charter schools experienced changes in their demographic composition similar to those seen at traditional public schools. The percentage of charter school students who were Hispanic increased (from 21 to 30 percent), as did the percentage who were Asian/Pacific Islander (from 3 to 4 percent). In contrast, the percentage of charter school students who were White decreased from 42 to 35 percent. The percentages decreased for Black (from 32 to 27 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Native (from 2 to 1 percent) charter school students as well. Data were collected for charter school students of Two or more races beginning in 2009–10. Students of Two or more races accounted for 3 percent of the charter school population in 2013–14.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The Condition of Education 2016 (NCES 2016–144), Charter School Enrollment.
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