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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 fall 2015, charter school legislation had been passed in 43 states and the District of Columbia.3 The states in which public charter school legislation had not been passed by that time were Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia.

Between school years 2000–01 and 2015–16, the percentage of all public schools that were charter schools increased from 2 to 7 percent, and the total number of charter schools increased from 2,000 to 6,900. In addition to increasing in number, public charter schools have also generally increased in enrollment size over this period: from 2000–01 to 2015–16, the percentages of public 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.

The percentage of all public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 1 to 6 percent between fall 2000 and fall 2015. During this period, public charter school enrollment increased steadily, from 0.4 million students in fall 2000 to 2.8 million students in fall 2015, an overall increase of 2.4 million students. In contrast, the number of students attending traditional public schools increased by 1.3 million between fall 2000 and fall 2005, and then decreased by 0.6 million between fall 2005 and fall 2015.

Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2015

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 18, 2017, 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 15, 2017, from PDF File.

3 Despite legislative approval for public charter schools in Alabama, none were operating in this state in fall 2015. For more information on charter school status in Alabama, please refer to

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). The Condition of Education 2017 (2018-144), Public Charter School Enrollment.

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