Skip Navigation

Charter schools

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, district, or other entity. 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 by the entity that granted it and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the accountability standards are not met.1

The first law allowing the establishment of public charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991.2 As of school year 201415, charter school legislation had been passed in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Despite legislative approval for public charter schools in Mississippi and Washington, none were operating in these states in school year 201415. The states in which public charter school legislation had not been passed by that time were Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Between school years 200405 and 201415, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 4 to 7 percent, and the total number of charter schools increased from 3,400 to 6,750. In addition to increasing in number, public charter schools have also generally increased in enrollment size over the last decade. From fall 2004 to fall 2014, the percentages of public charter schools with 300499, 500999, and 1,000 or more students each increased, while the percentage of charter schools with fewer than 300 students decreased.

The percentage of public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 2 to 5 percent between fall 2004 and fall 2014. The number of students enrolled in public charter schools increased by 1.8 million students (from 0.9 million to 2.7 million), while the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 0.4 million.

Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2014

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text. #Rounds to zero.

NOTE: Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.

1 Thomsen, J. (2016). 50-State Comparison: Charter School Policies. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved September 27, 2016, from

2 Finnigan, K., Adelman, N., Anderson, L., Cotton, L., Donnelly, M., and Price, T. (2004). Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report. U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Deputy Secretary. Washington, DC: Policy and Program Studies Service. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from PDF File.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). The Condition of Education 2017 (2017-144), Public Charter School Enrollment.

Related Tables and Figures:  (Listed by Release Date)

Other Resources:  (Listed by Release Date)