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Charter schools

Question:
What are charter schools? How common are they and whom do they serve?

Response:

A public charter school is a publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a legislative contract—a 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 Between school years 2009–10 and 2018–19, the percentage of all public schools in the United States (defined in this Fast Fact as the 50 states and the District of Columbia) that were charter schools increased from 5 to 8 percent, and the total number of charter schools increased from approximately 5,000 to 7,400.

The percentage of all public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 3 to 7 percent between fall 2009 and fall 2018. During this period, public charter school enrollment increased steadily, from 1.6 million students in fall 2009 to 3.3 million students in fall 2018—an overall increase of 1.7 million students. In contrast, the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 0.4 million between fall 2009 and fall 2018.

The first law allowing the establishment of public charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991.2 As of fall 2018, charter school legislation had been passed in 44 states and the District of Columbia.3 The states in which public charter school legislation had not been passed by that time were Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

The average enrollment size of public charter schools increased between 2009–10 to 2018–19. The percentages of public charter schools with 300–499, 500–999, and 1,000 or more students each increased, while the percentage of public charter schools with fewer than 300 students decreased.


Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2018

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

# Rounds to zero.

NOTE: Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.


1 Rafa, A., Erwin, B., Kelly, B., and Wixom, M.A. (2020). 50-State Comparison: Charter School Policies. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from http://www.ecs.org/charter-school-policies/.

2 Finnigan, K., Adelman, N., Anderson, L., Cotton, L., Donnelly, M.B., 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 October 8, 2020, from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/pcsp-final/finalreport.pdf.

3 Rafa, A., Erwin, B., Kelly, B., and Wixom, M.A. (2020). 50-State Comparison: Charter School Policies. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved October 8, 2020, from http://www.ecs.org/charter-school-policies/.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). The Condition of Education 2021 (2021-144), Public Charter School Enrollment.

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