Highlights from the 2020-21 School Year

Public charter schools have grown significantly over the past two decades, serving 3.7 million public school students in the United States as of the 2020-21 school year. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is uniquely positioned to be a source of comprehensive data as the importance of charter schools continues to rise. This 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?

In the 2020-21 school year, 7,821 charter schools and campuses served 3,695,769 charter students nationwide. This is more than double the number of schools and campuses, and triple the number of students, than the 2005-06 school year.

Although the charter sector continues to grow steadily, the rate of year-over-year percentage growth began to slow during the 2015-16 school year. This was due in part to the fact that more charter school closed during that period, and fewer new schools opened in their place. Simply having a larger overall population of charter schools already in operation makes it harder to continue growing at the same percentage rate each year. Still, 325 new charter schools opened in the 2020-21 school year, which was an unusual school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A separate analysis by the National Alliance, Voting with Their Feet: A State-level Analysis of Public Charter School and District Public School Trends, revealed that the pace of charter school growth increased sharply during the pandemic.

Who attends charter schools?

Overall, 7.5% of all public school students attend a charter school. Charter schools serve proportionately more students of color and more students from low-income backgrounds than do district schools. In the most recent year of data, students of color made up 69.3% of the charter school student body, while 53.4% of district school students were students of color. Charter school students are also more likely to be eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (59.6%), than their district school counterparts (53%).

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. Five states—California, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and New York—account for more than half of all charter school enrollment. A majority of charter schools are located in urban areas (57.4%), but charter schools are also found in suburban areas (29.2%), rural areas (9.9%), and towns (3.4%). Since 2005, there has also been steady growth in the number of local school districts with at least one charter school in their geographic boundaries.

How are charter schools financed?

Three primary sources fund public schools: federal, state, and local. The relative amount of funding from each of these three sources differs between charter schools and district schools. While the total amount of funding for charter schools is less than for district schools, charter schools usually receive a higher proportion of their funding from states and a lower proportion from local sources. On average, charter schools that are their own local educational agencies (LEAs) receive about 80 cents for every dollar a district school receives, amounting to approximately $3,000 less per student. Per-pupil funding in charter schools is less than per-pupil funding for district schools in 25 of the 27 states for which we have data.

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 65% of charter schools and 61% of charter enrollment. CMOs manage 26% of charter schools and 26% of charter enrollment, and EMOs account for just shy of 9% of schools and 13% 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, while EMO-managed schools are more frequently located in suburban areas. CMOs enroll the highest share of Black and Hispanic students across management types, while freestanding charter schools enroll the highest shares of Asian and White students. Overall, the top 10 CMOs and the top 10 EMOs account for 19% of charter school enrollment.

Who authorizes charter schools?

Authorizers play a critical role in the charter sector. Authorizers 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 most common authorizers are local education agencies (LEAs). In 2019-20, LEA authorizers were accountable for almost 50% of charter schools and students. However, state education agencies (SEAs) and independent charter boards (ICBs) notably hold a high concentration of authorizing power. Although there are only 21 SEA authorizers and 17 ICB authorizers, these groups together oversee approximately 38% of charter schools and campuses and 38% of charter student enrollment. The top 10 LEA, SEA, ICB, and higher education institution (HEI) authorizers with the largest enrollments account for 60% of all charter enrollment in the 2019-20 school year.

Looking Ahead

This 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 in which charter schools are located and identify ways that charter schools can better meet public demand.

For questions about this report, please use this form. Data requests can be sent to the National Alliance research team at datarequest@publiccharters.org. For media requests, please contact Alanna Klein at alanna@publiccharters.org.

About the Authors

Jamison White
Jamison White

Director, Data and 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.

Cynthia Xu
Yueting "Cynthia" Xu

Senior Manager, Data and Research

Yueting "Cynthia" worked as an ESL instructor 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. She received her master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania with dual majors in ESL education and statistical measurement & research.