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Indicators

Public Charter School Enrollment
(Last Updated: May 2019)

Between fall 2000 and fall 2016, overall public charter school enrollment increased from 0.4 million to 3.0 million. During this period, the percentage of public school students who attended charter schools increased from 1 to 6 percent.

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 guidelines on curriculum and management are not followed or if the accountability standards are not met.1 Between school years 2000–01 and 2016–17, the percentage of all public schools in the United States (defined in this indicator as the 50 states and the District of Columbia) that were charter schools increased from 2 to 7 percent, and the total number of charter schools increased from approximately 2,000 to 7,000.


Figure 1. Public charter school enrollment, by school level: Selected years, fall 2000 through fall 2016

Figure 1. Public charter school enrollment, by school level: Selected years, fall 2000 through fall 2016


NOTE: “Elementary” includes schools beginning with grade 6 or below and with no grade higher than 8. “Secondary” includes schools with no grade lower than 7. “Combined elementary/secondary” includes schools beginning with grade 6 or below and ending with grade 9 or above. Other schools not classified by grade span are included in the “All charter schools” count but are not presented separately in the figure.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2000–01 through 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018, table 216.20.


The percentage of all public school students who attended public charter schools increased from 1 to 6 percent between fall 2000 and fall 2016. During this period, public charter school enrollment increased steadily, from 0.4 million students in fall 2000 to 3.0 million students in fall 2016—an overall increase of 2.6 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 2016, for a net increase of 0.7 million students. In each year from fall 2000 to fall 2016, larger numbers of public charter school students were enrolled in elementary schools than in any of the other three levels of charter schools: secondary schools, combined schools, and other levels of schools that were not classified by grade span.


Figure 2. Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2016

Figure 2. Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2016


— Not available.
# Rounds to zero.
NOTE: Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.90.


The first law allowing the establishment of public charter schools was passed in Minnesota in 1991.2 As of fall 2016, charter school legislation had been passed in 43 states and the District of Columbia. 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.

Of the 44 jurisdictions with legislative approval for public charter schools as of fall 2016, California had the largest number of students enrolled in charter schools (603,000, representing 10 percent of all public school students in the state), and the District of Columbia had the highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (44 percent, representing 37,200 students). After the District of Columbia, Arizona had the next highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (17 percent, representing 186,000 students). Six states, however, had less than 1 percent of their public school students enrolled in public charter schools in fall 2016: Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.3


Figure 3. Percentage distribution of public charter school students, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2000 and fall 2016

Figure 3. Percentage distribution of public charter school students, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2000 and fall 2016


— Not available.
NOTE: Data for the “Two or more races” category were not available prior to 2009–10. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2000–01 and 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.30.


Between fall 2000 and fall 2016, public charter schools experienced changes in their demographic composition similar to those seen in public schools overall. (For more information on racial/ethnic enrollment in public schools, please see the report Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups.) The percentage of public charter school students who were Hispanic increased (from 19 to 33 percent), as did the percentage who were Asian/Pacific Islander (from 3 to 4 percent). In contrast, the percentage of public charter school students who were White decreased (from 43 to 32 percent), as did the percentages who were Black (from 33 to 26 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Native (from 2 to 1 percent). Beginning in fall 2009, data were collected on students of Two or more races attending public charter schools; students of Two or more races accounted for 4 percent of public charter school students in fall 2016.

Schools in which more than 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) under the National School Lunch Program are considered high-poverty schools.4 Those in which 25 percent or less of students qualify for FRPL are considered low-poverty schools. In fall 2016, some 34 percent of public charter school students attended high-poverty schools, which was higher than the percentage of traditional public school students who attended high-poverty schools (24 percent). The percentage of students attending low-poverty schools was similar for public charter school students (20 percent) and traditional public school students (21 percent).5


Figure 4. Percentage distribution of public charter schools, by enrollment size: School years 2000–01 and 2016–17

Figure 4. Percentage distribution of public charter schools, by enrollment size: School years 2000–01 and 2016–17


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey,” 2000–01 and 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 216.30.


The average enrollment size of public charter schools increased between 2000–01 to 2016–17. 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.


1 Wixom, M.A. (2018). 50-State Comparison: Charter School Policies. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Retrieved January 9, 2019, 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 January 9, 2019, from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/choice/pcsp-final/finalreport.pdf.
3 The fall enrollment in public charter schools was not available for Alabama in 2016.
4 Includes students whose National School Lunch Program (NSLP) eligibility has been determined through direct certification.
5 In fall 2016, some 5 percent of public charter school students and less than 1 percent of traditional public school students attended schools that did not participate in FRPL or had missing data.


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