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—a charter—with the state, the district, or another 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 the conditions of the charter are not met.1 Between school years 2009–10 and 2019–20, the number of public charter schools in the United States (defined in this Fast Fact as the 50 states and the District of Columbia) increased from approximately 5,000 to 7,500. Accordingly, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 5 to 8 percent.
Between fall 2009 and fall 2019, public charter school enrollment more than doubled, from 1.6 million students in fall 2009 to 3.4 million students in fall 2019—an overall increase of 1.8 million students. In contrast, the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 0.5 million between fall 2009 and fall 2019. Accordingly, the percentage of all public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 3 to 7 percent over this period.
The first law allowing the establishment of public charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991.2 As of fall 2019, forty-five states and the District of Columbia had passed public charter school legislation.3 The states in which public charter school legislation had not been passed by that time were Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont.
The average enrollment size of public charter schools increased between 2009–10 and 2019–20. 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, categorized into specific ranges, by state: Fall 2019
# Rounds to zero.
NOTE: U.S. average in this figure represents the 50 states and the District of Columbia. 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 December 7, 2021, from https://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 December 7, 2021, 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 December 7, 2021, from https://www.ecs.org/charter-school-policies/.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Public Charter School Enrollment. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgb.
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