Section 8


Charter School Operators

Updated 2018

What is the process for creating a charter school? How many are approved?

When an organization wants to create a charter school, it first has to identify which authorizer oversees charters in its municipality or state. Authorizers are the entities that decide whether to approve new charter schools, that monitor them and that can close them. Most authorizers are local school boards, but authorizers can be other types of entities as well, such as universities or independent state agencies. For more information about authorizers, see our section Governance and Regulation.

Authorizers’ application processes vary from state to state and within states. Typically, authorizers want information about the proposed school’s curriculum, the applicant’s track record and capacities and the organizational and financial plans for the new school. Application processes include initial letters of intent, followed by long application processes and in-person interviews with representatives of the organizations applying. Some applicants also apply for a federal or foundation grant to help them start charter schools, but they still must apply to their local authorizer to operate a school.

Large authorizers approved about one-third of all charter school applications annually from the 2010–11 through the 2015–16 school years, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA)—an organization that describes itself as “an independent voice for effective charter school policy and thoughtful charter authorizing practices that lead to great public schools.”1 Authorizers monitor each charter school to determine whether it is meeting the goals it laid out in its charter application. After a certain number of years, authorizers conduct reviews and decide whether each school’s charter to operate should be renewed. If the charter is not renewed, the school is closed. For more about charter school closures, see our section Governance and Regulation.

NACSA has created a set of 12 essential practices that it suggests all charter school authorizers follow, including granting new charter schools a five-year initial contract term.2 NACSA believes that five years gives operators enough time to work out start-up problems and gives authorizers enough data on which to base their decisions about renewal.

Who operates charter schools?

In 2016–17, about one-third of charter schools were operated by management organizations that run multiple schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), a nonprofit that describes itself as “committed to advancing the public charter school movement.”3 Some of these management organizations are nationally known, such as KIPP. Others are better known in some regions than in others, such as Success Academy, Green Dot Public Schools, Uncommon Schools and Rocketship Public Schools.

Of these organizations that manage multiple charter schools, some are nonprofit and others are for-profit. The nonprofits are sometimes called charter management organizations (CMOs), while the for-profits are sometimes called education management organizations (EMOs). The NAPCS reported that the following were the largest management organizations in 2016–17:4

By contrast:

The NAPCS estimated that 35 percent of charter schools were operated by nonprofit and for-profit management organizations in 2016–17.6


Types of charter school operators

Type of Operator, 2016–17 Percent of Charter Schools Number of Charter Schools Percent of Charter Students
Nonprofit management organization 23% 1,607 24%
For-profit management organization 12% 869 18%
Freestanding 65% 4,518 57%

Source: Rebecca David, “National Charter School Management Overview, 2016–17,” Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2018.


While about a third of charter schools are operated by organizations that run multiple schools, approximately 65 percent of charter schools were freestanding or independently operated in 2016–17, according to the NAPCS.7 A team of academic researchers has grouped the organizations that operate freestanding charter schools into five broad categories:8

How is the proportion of freestanding charter schools changing?

There are currently more freestanding charter schools than charter schools managed by organizations with multiple schools. However, data from the NAPCS show that the percentage of freestanding charter schools declined from 2007 to 2017, while there was growth in the percentage of schools managed by organizations with multiple schools.9 Therefore, freestanding charter schools serve a declining majority proportion of all charter school students.

In the 2007–08 school year, more than 78 percent of charter schools were freestanding and only 11.5 percent were managed by nonprofit organizations with multiple schools. By 2016–17, the total number of charter schools had grown, including the number of freestanding charter schools. But only 65 percent of charter schools were freestanding in 2016–17, while 23 percent were managed by nonprofit organizations with multiple schools. In 2007–08, freestanding charter schools served 74 percent of all charter school students. In 2016–17, freestanding charter schools served only about 57 percent of all charter school students, while nonprofit management organizations served 24 percent of charter students.10






The proportion of freestanding charter schools and students could be declining for a number of reasons. According to reporting by Education Week, charter schools that are managed by organizations with multiple schools may enjoy organizational benefits that freestanding charters do not have. For example, management organizations can provide centralized administrative support. They may be able to offer teachers more competitive salaries and benefits. And they may attract more philanthropic support from foundations and private donors.11

Does the research suggest that students at charter schools run by management organizations perform better than students at freestanding charter schools?

It can be difficult to analyze student achievement at any one management organization because many of them operate multiple schools in multiple states with different systems for collecting and reporting data.

Some researchers have asked whether students at charter schools run by management organizations perform better than students at freestanding charter schools. A 2017 report from the ongoing CREDO study at Stanford University, using data from 2012–13 to 2014–15, found differences in student achievement at charter schools with different types of operators. Specifically, it found that students attending freestanding charter schools experienced similar growth in math scores compared with students attending traditional public schools. Students attending freestanding charter schools experienced slightly better growth in reading scores compared with students attending traditional public schools, equivalent to six extra days of reading growth per year.12

CREDO also found that students attending charter schools run by a nonprofit management organization have modestly stronger growth in both reading and math scores compared with students attending traditional public schools—equivalent to about 12 extra days of growth per year in reading and 12 extra days of growth per year in math. However, CREDO found that compared with students at traditional public schools, students attending charter schools managed by for-profit organizations had weaker growth in math scores—equivalent to about 12 fewer days of growth per year in math—and similar growth in reading scores. This led the CREDO researchers to conclude that “charter school operators that hold nonprofit status post significantly higher student academic gains than those with a for-profit orientation. For-profit operators have results that are at best equal to the traditional public school students (reading) or worse (math).”13

The CREDO study at Stanford University is supported by the Walton Family Foundation and the Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, both of which support of charter schools. The CREDO study includes charters and traditional public schools in 24 states plus New York City and Washington, D.C. Their 2017 analysis of achievement at charter schools with different types of operators covered about 83 percent of traditional public school students who had taken standardized tests and 97 percent of charter school students nationwide. For more information about academic achievement at charter schools, see our section Student Achievement.



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