Key Facts about Charter Schools

Charter Schools In Perspective

Key Facts about Charter Schools

Section Index
What is a charter school? How many charter schools are there in the United States? How many students attend charters? What are the demographics of charter school students? Where are charter schools located? Which grade levels do charter schools serve?

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are created and operated by organizations other than local school districts. Here are some other defining characteristics of charter schools:

Who can attend them?

Who opens and operates them?

How are they governed?

Are charter schools public schools?

Where did charter schools come from?

How many charter schools are there in the United States?

As of the 2011–12 school year, laws allowing the creation of charter schools have been passed in 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. In 2015, Alabama passed legislation permitting the creation of charter schools.6

The most recent data on how many charter schools exist and how many students attend those schools come from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), which calls itself "the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the quality, growth, and sustainability of charter schools." The NAPCS estimates that there were 6,004 charter schools in the United States in 2012–13 and 6,440 in 2013-14. The proportion of charter schools to all public schools was 6.3 percent in the 2012-13 school year.7 The following chart illustrates the growth in charter schools over time.


Number of charter schools, 1999-2014

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, also has data on the number of charter schools and how many students attend them. However, their data are less current than those published by the NAPCS. When more current data are released, they can be found on the NCES website: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/.

How many students attend charters?

According to the NAPCS, about 2.5 million students attended charter schools in 2013–14, meaning that charter school students accounted for more than 5 percent of all public school students.8 Student enrollment in charter schools grew more than 70 percent from 2008-09 to 2013-14. The following chart illustrates the growth in charter school enrollment over time.


Number of charter school students, in thousands, 1999-2014

What are the demographics of charter school students?

On average, charter schools nationwide tend to enroll a larger proportion of African-American students and students living in poverty than do traditional public schools nationwide. On average, charter schools nationwide also tend to enroll a smaller proportion of English-language learners and special education students than do traditional public schools nationwide.9 However, these demographics vary from school to school and district to district. The demographic picture becomes even more complex when comparing the demographics of charter school students to those of their peers in nearby traditional public schools.

Eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches is a standard way of identifying students who are living in poverty. According to the NCES, at 33.8 percent of charter schools, more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. By contrast, at 19.7 percent of traditional public schools, more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.10

The ongoing Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study from Stanford University compares charter school and traditional public school populations in 27 states. Note that CREDO counts Washington, D.C., as a state and also counts New York City as a “state” separately from New York State. In these 27 states, the CREDO compares traditional public schools to charter schools and to what they call “feeder” schools—the traditional public schools from which local charter schools draw their student populations.11

CREDO found that in these 27 states in 2010-11, charter schools served a slightly higher proportion of low-income students than traditional public schools did. However, the proportion of low-income students was the same at charter schools and their “feeder” schools—the traditional public schools from which local charter schools draw their student populations.12

The following graphs illustrate these and other demographic characteristics of charter school students and traditional public school students, including the percentage of students who are English-language learners or who are in special education programs. For more information on charter students’ demographics, see the Diversity and Inclusion section of this research guide.


Student race and ethnicity

Students from low-income households

Student gender

Percent of English-language learners, percent of special education, 2010-11

Where are charter schools located?

Minnesota was the first state to pass a law allowing the establishment of charter schools, in 1991. The first charter school opened in 1992. As of the 2011–12 school year, legislation allowing charter schools has been passed in 42 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Despite legislative approval in Maine and Washington State, no charter schools were operational in these states in 2011–12. Legislation allowing charter schools has not been passed in Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont or West Virginia.13


States with charter school legislation

According to the NCES, over half of charter schools (55.4 percent) are located in cities. Just over twenty percent are in suburban locales, 7.4 percent are in towns, and 16 percent are located in rural areas.14 The following chart compares the distribution of charter schools and traditional public schools in different locales.


Most charter schools are located in cities

There are more charter schools in the South and West than in other parts of the country. Over a third (37.2 percent) of the country's charter schools are located in the West.15 The following chart compares this distribution of charter schools by region with traditional public schools.


Most charter schools are located in the South and West

Charter schools are much more heavily concentrated in some states than others, and the proportion of charter schools to public schools also varies from state to state and district to district. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, California has the most charter schools, with 1,065 schools in the 2012–13 school year, which may account for the high percentage of charters located in the western region of the country.16

If counted as a state, Washington, D.C., has the highest proportion of charter schools, at 47.1 percent of all public schools in 2012 - 13. New Orleans is the city where charter schools serve the highest percentage of students: 91 percent of New Orleans public school students attended charter schools in 2013. Detroit had the next highest percentage: 55 percent of Detroit public school students attended charter schools in 2013 - 14.17


Districts with the highest percentage of students attending charter schools, 2013-14

Which grade levels do charter schools serve?

According to the most recent data from the NCES, over half of all charter schools are elementary schools (54.9 percent). This is lower than the percentage of traditional public schools that are elementary schools (68.6 percent).18 The following chart compares the distribution of charter schools and traditional public schools, by grade.


Distributions of charter and traditional public schools differ across grade levels

There were 5,696 charter schools in 2011–12 according to the NCES. Of these, 3,127 were elementary schools, 1,418 were secondary schools, 1,112 were combined elementary/secondary and 39 were not classified by grade span. The following chart shows charter school enrollment by grade span.19


Most charter school students attend elementary schools