Public charter schools have grown over the past two decades to serve millions of public school students across the country. Given this growth and the overall importance of the charter school sector, the National Alliance is in an ideal position to be a source of comprehensive data on charter schools. As leaders of the sector, we compile and thoroughly review data from multiple administrative sources, while also accurately identifying and tracking charter schools to better reflect the unique environment in which they operate. This digest is the first comprehensive publication resulting from these efforts. In it, readers will find data on the size and growth of the charter school sector over time, as well as information about other important topics, such as the demographics of the students charter schools serve, where charter schools are located, the management and governance of charter schools.

Size, Growth, and Location of the Charter School Sector

Forty-five states have laws allowing charter schools, and charter schools currently operate in 43 states, two territories, and Washington, D.C., though five 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 in suburban areas (29.7%), rural areas (8.7%), and towns (3.4%).

Since the 2005-06 school year, the total number of charter schools has doubled and now serves more than three times as many students. There has been both steady growth in districts having at least one charter school located within their boundaries and districts with multiple charter schools located within their boundaries. Although the sector continues to grow, the rate of growth began to slow starting in the 2015-16 school year. This is due to a combination of more closures and fewer openings per year as well as simply a larger population of charter schools. Still, the number of new charter schools in 2018-19 was at its highest level since 2014-15. The yearly closure rate of charter schools is about 3.7% and approximately 4.2% of opening schools close in their first year.

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 are found in high-poverty census tracts (43.8%) than are district schools (24.2%). In all but six states where charter schools are located, the state’s charter sector enrolls a higher percentage of students in a school located in a high-poverty area (41.9%) compared to that state’s district schools (22.6%).

Demographics

Overall, students in charter schools represent 6.5% of all public school students. 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, 68.7% of charter school students are students of color, while 52.4% of district school students are students of color. Charter school students are also more likely to come from low-income backgrounds (59.3%), than their district school counterparts (54.3%). Additionally, charter schools serve greater proportions of student with limited English proficiency than district schools (14.3% vs. 11.9%), but fewer students with disabilities (12.0% vs. 13.8%).

Authorizers and Management Organizations

The role of the authorizer is an important component to the charter sector. Authorizers decide whether a charter school will open and the standards it must meet to remain open. While the National Alliance’s model law recommends a state have multiple authorizers, to date 14 states have only one, with six states having only local education agency (LEA) authorizers, six states having only state authorizers, and one state and D.C. having only independent charter board authorizers. Though there are almost 1,000 different authorizers across the country, 40 of the top authorizers account for more than 56% of all charter enrollment.

Charter schools can be managed independently, by a charter management organization (CMO), or by an education management organization (EMO). Independently managed charter schools account for 60.6% of charter schools and 55.1% of charter enrollment. Charter schools managed by CMOs account for 29.0% of charter schools and 30.4% of charter enrollment, and charter schools managed by EMOs account for 10.4% of schools and 14.5% of charter enrollment. The larger share of enrollment by EMOs can be attributed to the fact that they operate more virtual schools that typically have larger enrollments. The top 10 CMOs and EMOs account for 21.5% of charter school enrollment.

Funding

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%).

Future work

Though this inaugural edition of the charter school digest provides a large-scale review of the data concerning charter schools, it is not exhaustive. Future versions will include information about charter school performance and charter school teachers and leaders. We will also look to include more information about the communities in which charter schools are located and where charter schools can better meet public demand.