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School Choice in the United States: 2019

Indicator 2: Public Schools and Enrollment

In fall 2016, a higher percentage of public charter school students than of traditional public school students were Black (26 vs. 15 percent) and Hispanic (33 vs. 26 percent), while a higher percentage of traditional public school students than of public charter school students were White (49 vs. 32 percent) and Asian/Pacific Islander (6 vs. 4 percent).

In fall 2016, about 47.3 million (94 percent) public school students attended traditional public schools and 3.0 million (6 percent) attended public charter schools.1 Traditional public schools accounted for 93 percent (91,100) of all public schools, while public charter schools accounted for 7 percent (7,000). The pupil/teacher ratio was 16.1 at traditional public schools and 17.8 at public charter schools.2 The number of public charter schools and their enrollments have increased substantially in recent years. The number of public charter schools increased by 252 percent (from 2,000 to 7,000) between fall 2001 and fall 2016, compared with a slight decrease of less than 1 percent for traditional public schools. The enrollment of public charter schools increased by 571 percent (from 0.4 million to 3.0 million) during the same period, compared with an increase of 1 percent for traditional public schools. This indicator uses the Common Core of Data to examine the characteristics of traditional and charter public schools and their students.


Figure 2.1. Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2016

Figure 2.1. 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.


As of fall 2016, charter school legislation had been passed in 43 states and the District of Columbia. Seven states (Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia) had not passed public charter school legislation by that time. Even among those states with charter school legislation, the laws varied from state to state with respect to issues such as the entities that could authorize charter schools and the required teacher qualifications.3 Of the 44 jurisdictions with legislative approval for public charter schools as of fall 2016,4 the District of Columbia had the highest percentage of public school students enrolled in charter schools (44 percent), followed by Arizona (17 percent) and Colorado (13 percent). In contrast, less than 1 percent of public school students were enrolled in charter schools in Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.


Figure 2.2. Percentage distribution of students in traditional public schools and public charter schools, by race/ethnicity; and percentage of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by racial/ethnic concentration: 2016–17

Figure 2.2. Percentage distribution of students in traditional public schools and public charter schools, by race/ethnicity; and percentage of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by racial/ethnic concentration: 2016–17

NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Schools with other racial/ethnic concentrations, such as those with enrollment that is more than 50 percent Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Two or more races, are not shown. 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,” 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.30.


In fall 2016, a higher percentage of traditional public school students than of public charter school students were White (49 vs. 32 percent) or Asian/Pacific Islander (6 vs. 4 percent). In contrast, a higher percentage of public charter school students than of traditional public school students were Black (26 vs. 15 percent) or Hispanic (33 vs. 26 percent). For both traditional public schools and public charter schools, 4 percent of their enrolled students were of Two or more races and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native.

Consistent with these patterns, a higher percentage of traditional public schools than of public charter schools had more than 50 percent White enrollment (57 vs. 33 percent) in fall 2016, while a higher percentage of public charter schools than of traditional public schools had more than 50 percent Black enrollment (23 vs. 9 percent) and more than 50 percent Hispanic enrollment (26 vs. 16 percent). The percentage of schools with no majority racial/ethnic group was 16 percent each for traditional public schools and public charter schools.


Figure 2.3. Percentage distribution of students in traditional public schools and public charter schools and percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by percentage of students in school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 201617

Figure 2.3. Percentage distribution of students in traditional public schools and public charter schools and percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by percentage of students in school eligible for free or reduced-price lunch: 201617

# Rounds to zero.
1 The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program. To be eligible for free lunch under the program, a student must be from a household with an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty threshold; to be eligible for reduced-price lunch, a student must be from a household with an income between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty threshold. In addition, children may qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches through participation in other federal programs or through the Community Eligibility provisions.
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 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,” 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.30.


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. Those in which 25 percent or less of students qualify for FRPL are considered low-poverty schools. Compared with traditional public school students, a higher percentage of public charter school students in fall 2016 were enrolled in high-poverty schools (34 vs. 24 percent) and a lower percentage were enrolled in low-poverty schools (20 vs. 21 percent).5

Similar to the pattern observed for students, a higher percentage of public charter schools than of traditional public schools were considered high-poverty schools in fall 2016 (36 vs. 24 percent). However, the percentage of public charter schools considered low-poverty schools was 0.3 of a percentage point higher than the percentage of traditional public schools.6


Figure 2.4. Percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by school level and enrollment size: 201617

Figure 2.4. Percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by school level and enrollment size: 201617

# Rounds to zero.
1 Includes schools beginning with grade 6 or below and with no grade higher than 8.
2 Includes schools with no grade lower than 7.
3 Includes schools beginning with grade 6 or below and ending with grade 9 or above.
NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 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,” 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.30.


In fall 2016, a higher percentage of traditional public schools than of public charter schools were elementary schools (69 vs. 56 percent) and secondary schools (24 vs. 23 percent). In comparison, a higher percentage of public charter schools than of traditional public schools were combined elementary/secondary schools (21 vs. 6 percent).   

Almost half (47 percent) of public charter schools in fall 2016 had an enrollment of less than 300, compared with 29 percent of traditional public schools. Schools of larger sizes (those with an enrollment of 300 to 499, 500 to 999, or 1,000 or more) were more prevalent among traditional public schools than among public charter schools. For instance, 34 percent of traditional public schools had an enrollment of 500 to 999, compared with 22 percent of public charter schools.


Figure 2.5. Percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by school locale and region: 201617

Figure 2.5. Percentage distribution of traditional public schools and public charter schools, by school locale and region: 201617

NOTE: Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. 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,” 2016–17. See Digest of Education Statistics 2018, table 216.30.


In fall 2016, over half (56 percent) of public charter schools were located in cities, compared with 25 percent of traditional public schools. The percentages of traditional public schools in other locales (suburban areas, towns, and rural areas) were all higher than the percentages of public charter schools. For instance, 29 percent of traditional public schools were located in rural areas, compared with 11 percent of public charter schools.

With respect to region, a higher percentage of public charter schools than of traditional public schools in fall 2016 were located in the West (37 vs. 23 percent) while a higher percentage of traditional public schools than of public charter schools were located in the Northeast (16 vs. 10 percent), Midwest (26 vs. 20 percent), and South (35 vs. 33 percent).


1 For a definition of traditional public and public charter schools, see Indicator 1. For more information on the growth of traditional public school and public charter school enrollment over time, also see Indicator 1.
2 Pupil/teacher ratio is based on schools that reported both enrollment and teacher data.
3 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/.
4 Data on fall enrollment in public charter schools were not available for Alabama in 2016.
5 In fall 2016, some 5 percent of public charter school students and less than 1 percent of traditional public school students were enrolled in schools that did not participate in FRPL or had missing data.
6 In fall 2016, some 5 percent each of public charter schools and traditional public schools did not participate in FRPL or had missing data.


Reference Tables

  • Table 216.30 (Digest of Education Statistics 2018) Number and percentage distribution of public elementary and secondary students and schools, by traditional or charter school status and selected characteristics: Selected years, 2000-01 through 2016-17
  • Table 216.90 (Digest of Education Statistics 2018) Public elementary and secondary charter schools and enrollment, and charter schools and enrollment as a percentage of total public schools and total enrollment in public schools, by state: Selected years, 200001 through 201617

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