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Characteristics of Traditional Public and Public Charter Schools
(Last Updated: April 2014)

In school year 2011–12, about one third of traditional public schools (34 percent) were in rural areas, compared with 16 percent of charter schools. In contrast, 24 percent of traditional public schools and the majority of charter schools (55 percent) were in cities.

In school year 2011–12, there were 98,328 public schools in the United States, including 92,632 traditional public schools and 5,696 charter schools. These numbers are higher than those in school year 1999–2000, when there were a total of 92,012 public schools, with 90,488 traditional public schools and 1,524 charter schools. Over two-thirds of traditional public schools (69 percent) were elementary schools in 2011–12, versus 55 percent of charter schools. By contrast, 20 percent of charter schools in that year were combined schools, meaning that they began with grade 6 or below and extended to grade 9 or above, compared with 6 percent of traditional public schools.


Figure 1. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school status and enrollment size: School years 1999–2000 and 2011–12

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school status and enrollment size: School years 1999–2000 and 2011–12

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 1999–2000 and 2011–12. See Digest of Education Statistics 2013, table 216.30.


Charter schools tend to be smaller, in terms of enrollment, than traditional public schools. In 2011–12, some 56 percent of charter schools were small (enrollment of fewer than 300 students), compared with 29 percent of traditional public schools. However, the percentage of small charter schools has decreased over time, from 77 percent in 1999–2000 to 56 percent in 2011–12. Over the same period, the percentage of charter schools that were large (1,000 or more students) increased from 2 to 4 percent. In 2011–12, about 9 percent of traditional public schools were large.


Figure 2. Percentage of public schools, by school status and racial/ethnic concentration: School years 1999–2000 and 2011–12

Figure 2. Percentage of public schools, by school status and racial/ethnic concentration: School years 1999–2000 and 2011–12

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 1999–2000 and 2011–12. See Digest of Education Statistics 2013, table 216.30.


In 2011–12, a majority (61 percent) of traditional public schools had enrollment in which more than half of the students were White, while 9 percent had enrollment in which more than half of the students were Black and 15 percent had enrollment in which more than half of the students were Hispanic. In comparison, 37 percent of charter schools had more than 50 percent White enrollment, 25 percent had more than 50 percent Black enrollment, and 22 percent had more than 50 percent Hispanic enrollment. For both traditional public and charter schools, the percentages of schools that had more than 50 percent White enrollment or more than 50 percent Black enrollment were lower in 2011–12 than in 1999–2000, while the percentages of schools that had more than 50 percent Hispanic enrollment were higher in 2011–12 than in 1999–2000. These shifts reflect, in part, changes in student demographics overall. Between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of children ages 5 to 17 who were White decreased from 62 to 54 percent, the percentage who were Black decreased from 15 to 14 percent, and the percentage who were Hispanic increased from 16 to 23 percent.


Figure 3. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school status and percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: School year 2011–12

Figure 3. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school status and percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: School year 2011–12

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 2011–12. See Digest of Education Statistics 2013, table 216.30.


High-poverty schools, in which more than 75 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), accounted for 21 percent of all public schools in 2011–12, compared with 12 percent in 1999–2000. In 2011–12, some 20 percent of traditional public schools were high poverty, compared with 34 percent of charter schools.


Figure 4. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school locale, region, and status: School year 2011–12

Figure 4. Percentage distribution of public schools, by school locale, region, and status: School year 2011–12

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 2011–12. See Digest of Education Statistics 2013, table 216.30.


In 2011–12, about one third of traditional public schools (34 percent) were in rural areas, versus 16 percent of charter schools. In contrast, 24 percent of traditional schools and the majority of charter schools (55 percent) were in cities.

Regionally, the highest percentage of traditional public schools was in the South (35 percent) in 2011–12, followed by the Midwest (26 percent), the West (23 percent), and the Northeast (16 percent). Charter schools followed a different pattern. In 2011–12, some 37 percent of charter schools were in the West, 31 percent were in the South, 22 percent were in the Midwest, and 10 percent were in the Northeast.


Glossary terms: Charter school, Combined school, Elementary school, Free or reduced-price lunch, National School Lunch Program, Private school, Secondary school, Traditional public school
Data Source: Common Core of Data (CCD)


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National Center for Education Statistics - http://nces.ed.gov
U.S. Department of Education