Charter School Data Digest 2020 Highlights

Public charter schools have grown significantly over the past two decades, serving more than 3.3 million (6.5%) public school students in the United States as of the 2018-19 school year. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is in an ideal position to be a source of comprehensive data as the importance of charter schools continues to rise. The Charter School Data Digest is a digital resource with clear, practical data on important issues surrounding charter schools.

How many charter schools and students are there?

Enrollment Schools Chart

In the 2018-19 school year, there were 7,530 charter schools and campuses serving 3,316,276 charter students nationwide. This is more than double the number of schools/ campuses and triple the number of students than the 2005-06 school year, when the National Alliance began compiling this data.

Although the charter sector continues to grow, the rate of this growth began to slow during the 2015-16 school year. This was due to more charter school closures with fewer new schools opening in their place, as well as simply a larger overall population of charter schools already in operation. Still, 475 new charter schools opened in 2018-19, the highest number of new schools seen since 2014-15, when 508 new schools opened. The yearly closure rate of charter schools about 3.7%, and approximately 4.2% of new charter schools close after their first year of operation.

Who do charter schools serve?

Overall, 6.5% of all public school students attend a charter school. Charter schools have historically served proportionately more students of color and more students from low-income backgrounds than district schools. In the most recent year of data, students of color made up 68.7% of the charter school student body, while 52.4% of district school students were students of color. Charter school students are also more likely to be eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program (59.3%), than their district school counterparts (54.3%). Additionally, charter schools serve slightly greater proportions of students with limited English proficiency than district schools (14.3% vs. 11.9%), but slightly fewer students with disabilities (12.0% vs. 13.8%).

How are charter schools financed?

On average, charter schools receive about 74 cents for every dollar a district school receives, amounting to approximately $4,400 less per student. Per-pupil funding in charter schools is less than per-pupil funding in 22 out of the 27 states for which we have data. Over the period from school years 2006-07 to 2016-17, charter school funding increased by $225 per pupil while per-pupil funding in district schools increased by $1,139. On average, charter schools receive proportionally more funding from the state (60.0%) than district schools (45.5%).

Where are charter schools located?

Forty-five states have laws allowing charter schools, and charter schools currently operate in 43 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C. However, 5 states—California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and New York—account for over half of all charter school enrollment. While a majority of charter schools are located in urban areas (58.1%), charter schools are also found in suburban areas (29.7%), rural areas (8.7%), and towns (3.4%). Since 2005, there has been steady growth in the number of local school districts with at least one charter school in their geographic boundaries, as well as consistent growth in the number of districts with multiple charter schools in their geographic boundaries.

Charter schools often open in areas where there is the greatest academic need, and many choose to open in areas of high poverty. The National Alliance defines a high poverty area as a census tract where 20% or more of the population lives below the poverty line. Nationally, a much higher share of charter schools is found in high-poverty census tracts (43.8%) compared to the share of district schools found in these areas (24.2%). In all but six states where charter schools are located, the state’s charter sector enrolls a higher percentage of students attending schools in high-poverty areas (41.9%) compared to that state’s district schools (22.6%).

Who manages charter schools?

Charter schools can be managed independently, by a charter management organization (CMO), or by an education management organization (EMO). Independently managed “freestanding” charter schools account for 60.6% of charter schools and 55.1% of charter enrollment. CMOs manage 29.0% of charter schools and 30.4% of charter enrollment, and EMOs account for only 10.4% of schools and 14.5% of charter enrollment. Freestanding charter schools are most common across locale types, but CMO-managed and freestanding schools are most often found in urban areas, whereas EMO-managed schools are more frequently located in suburban areas. CMOs enroll the highest share of Black and Hispanic students across management types, while EMOs and freestanding charter schools enroll the highest shares of White students. Overall, The top 10 CMOs and EMOs account for 21.5% of charter school enrollment.

Manager Types

Who authorizes charter schools?

Authorizers play a critical role in the charter sector. These are the entities empowered by a state legislature to decide whether a charter school will open and the standards it must meet to remain open. While there are several different types of authorizers, the common authorizers are local education agencies (LEAs). Nearly 90% of the 963 charter school authorizers across the country are LEAs and, in 2018-19, LEA authorizers were accountable for almost 50% of charter schools and students. However, state education agencies (SEAs) and independent charter boards (ICBs) notably appear to hold a high concentration of authorizing power. Although there are only 21 SEA authorizers and 18 ICB authorizers, these groups together oversee approximately 36% of charter schools/ campuses and 37% of charter student enrollment. The top 10 LEA, SEA, ICB, and higher education institution (HEI) authorizers with the largest enrollments account for 56% of all charter enrollment.

Looking Ahead

This inaugural edition of the Charter School Data Digest provides a large-scale review of charter sector data but is not exhaustive. In future versions of this publication, we hope to include information on additional topics such as charter school performance, teachers, and leaders. We also aim to provide more data relating to the communities where charter schools are located and identify where charter schools can better meet public demand.

For questions about this report, please use this this form. Data requests can be sent to the National Alliance research team at For media requests, please contact Shaelyn Macedonio at

About the Authors

Dr. Nathan Barrett

Senior Director of Research and Evaluation

Nathan Barrett, Ph.D., is the former Senior Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Before joining the National Alliance, Barrett was an Associate Director and Senior Research Fellow at The Education Research Alliance for New Orleans at Tulane University where he studied the unprecedented school reforms in New Orleans focusing on school choice, teacher policies, school discipline, and equity. In addition to his research experience with charter schools, he also served on a charter school board as the chair of the finance committee and treasurer.

A first-generation and nontraditional college student, Barrett received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Eastern Kentucky University and Georgia State University, respectively, and received his Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Kentucky. His work has been published in academic journals such as American Journal of Education, The American Review of Public Administration, Educational Researcher, Economics of Education Review, and Evaluation Review, and has published numerous policy briefs and reports to inform policymakers.

Jamison White
Jamison White

Sr. Manager, Data & Research

Before joining the National Alliance in 2017, Jamison worked as a financial and small-business consultant in Pittsburgh, Boston, and the greater New York area. Jamison studied at Carnegie Mellon University and Philipps-Universität Marburg, Germany. He is a part of a founding group for a classical charter school in Washington, DC. In his free time, Jamison researches school curricula, pedagogies, and charter school models.

Adam Gerstenfeld
Adam Gerstenfeld

Manager, Data and Research

Before joining the team, Adam was a 1st-grade teacher at Lenora B. Smith Elementary in Miami, Florida where he taught reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Adam received his bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Florida, where he was a radio and television producer for the local NPR and PBS stations. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in government analytics from Johns Hopkins University.

Jessica Snydman
Jessica Snydman

Data and Research Specialist

Prior to joining the National Alliance, Jessica held internships with Girl Scouts of the U.S.A’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office and Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-2). She also worked for the legal firm Krooth & Altman, LLP in D.C., assisting with numerous HUD multifamily affordable housing deals. Jessica is a Baltimore native and a passionate advocate for students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD, having centered the bulk of her academic and professional efforts on supporting the needs of neurodiverse learners. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Dickinson College, and her master’s degree in Education Policy Studies from The George Washington University.

Cynthia Xu
Yueting Xu

Data and Research Specialist

Yueting (Cynthia) worked as an ESL teacher and education consultant in Philadelphia prior to joining the research team at the National Alliance. During her undergraduate years at Sun Yat-sen University, she studied English language & literature and Economics, served as a research fellow in the university writing center, and conducted research on educational opportunities for underserved youth. She received her master’s degree from University of Pennsylvania with dual majors in ESL education and statistical measurement & research.