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 January 2018, laws allowing the creation of charter schools have been passed in 44 states—plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.6

The most recent data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a part of the U.S. Department of Education, estimate that there were 6,747 charter schools in the United States in 2014–15 and 6,855 in 2015–16.7 The proportion of charter schools to all public schools was 7 percent in the 2015–16 school year, an increase from the 2000–01 school year when the proportion of charter schools to all public schools was 2 percent.8 When more current data are released, they can be found on the NCES website. The following chart illustrates the growth in charter schools over time.


How many students attend charters?

According to the NCES, more than 2.8 million students attended charter schools in 2015–16, meaning that charter school students accounted for approximately 6 percent of all public school students.9 Student enrollment in charter schools grew more than 70 percent from 2009–10 to 2015–16.10 The following chart illustrates the growth in charter school enrollment over time.


What are the demographics of charter school students?

Charter schools nationwide tend to enroll a larger proportion of black students and students living in poverty than do traditional public schools nationwide.11 Charter schools nationwide tend to enroll a similar proportion of English-language learners and special education students as do traditional public schools nationwide.12 However, these demographics vary from school to school and district to district. The demographic picture becomes even more complex when comparing charter school students’ demographics with those of their peers in nearby traditional public schools.


The NCES also has data on the percentage of children at charters and traditional public schools during the 2015–16 school year who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common way of identifying low-income students. At 33 percent of charter schools, more than 75 percent of students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. By contrast, at 24 percent of traditional public schools, more than 75 percent of students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program.13

In 2013, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study from Stanford University compared charter school and traditional public school populations in 27 states. In 2017, CREDO published an update in which they collected data for 3.7 million students across 26 states. The study includes data from traditional public schools, charter schools and what they call “feeder” schools—the traditional public schools from which local charter schools draw their student populations.14

A comparison of charter schools with all traditional public schools in these 26 states indicates that charter schools do serve a slightly higher proportion of low-income students. However, a comparison of charter schools with just the traditional public schools that their student population comes from—the feeder schools—shows that the proportion of low-income students is the same.

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 section.




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 January 2018, laws allowing the creation of charter schools have been passed in 44 states—plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam.15 Despite legislative approval in Alabama and Kentucky, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), no charter schools were operational in those states in 2016–17.16 NAPCS calls itself “the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the quality, growth, and sustainability of charter schools.” In 2018, legislation allowing charter schools had not been passed in Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont or West Virginia.17


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015–16 over half of charter schools (57 percent) were located in cities. Twenty-six percent were in suburban locales, 7 percent were in towns and 11 percent were located in rural areas.18 The following chart compares the distribution of charter schools and traditional public schools in different locales.


There are more charter schools in the South and West than in other parts of the country. Over a third (37 percent) of the country’s charter schools are located in the West.19 The following chart compares this distribution of charter schools by region with traditional public schools.


Charter schools are much more heavily concentrated in some states than others, and the proportion of charter schools to traditional public schools also varies from state to state and district to district. According to the NAPCS, California has the most charter schools, with 1,224 schools in the 2015–16 school year, which may account for the high percentage of charters located in the western region of the country. In 2015–16, Texas came in second, with 702 schools.20

If treated as comparable to a state, the city of Washington, D.C., has the highest proportion of charter schools, at 49 percent of all public schools in 2015–16.21 Despite this, Washington, D.C., wouldn’t make the top five list among U.S. cities in terms of charter school student population. New Orleans is the city where charter schools serve the highest percentage of students: 93 percent of New Orleans public school students attended charter schools in 2016–17. Flint had the next highest percentage: 55 percent of Flint public school students attended charter schools in 2016–17.22


Which grade levels do charter schools serve?

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2015–16 school year over half of all charter schools were elementary schools (56 percent). This is lower than the percentage of traditional public schools that are elementary schools (69 percent).23 The following chart compares the distribution of charter schools and traditional public schools, by grade.


There were 6,855 charter schools in 2015–16 according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Of these, 3,854 were elementary schools, 1,576 were secondary schools, 1,576 were combined elementary/secondary and 19 were not classified by grade span. The following chart shows charter school enrollment by grade span.24