As of the 2018-19 school year, charter schools exist in 43 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. They are found in 12.7% of local school districts nationwide and are predominately located in urban areas.

Trends in locale differ dramatically between charter schools and district schools. Approximately 58% of charter school students are enrolled at a school or campus in an urban area. Meanwhile, only 28.3% of district students attend an urban school. This phenomenon is flipped in enrollment at rural schools. Nearly 20% of district students attend school in a rural area, but just 8.7% of charter students are enrolled at a rural school or campus.  For breakdowns of school locales by state, see here.

Table 3.1: Districts with Charter Schools

Data from the 2018-19 school year further reveals differences in charter school enrollment demographics across locales. In general, Black and Hispanic students are more likely to be enrolled in urban charter schools than schools in other locales, while White students are more likely to be enrolled in rural and town charter schools. Specifically, 57.5% of charter school students in rural communities and 56.2% of students in towns were White; while nearly 74% of charter school students in urban areas were Black or Hispanic. Black and Hispanic students were also the majority in suburban charter schools, at 54.2%. Additionally, there were notably more charter students who were Native American, Pacific Islander, or Two or More Races (“Other”) enrolled at schools in towns and rural areas. This may be linked to the potential presence of charter schools in rural indigenous communities.

In the 2018-19 school year, 69.1% of charter school students in urban areas received Free or Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL). Forty percent (40%) of rural charter students received FRPL, and town and suburban charter schools had similar levels of FRPL students, at approximately 49% and 51%, respectively.

To see more information on student demographic breakdowns, see “Section 2: Who do Charter Schools Serve?” of this report. Demographic breakdowns by state can be found here

Table 3.2: 2018-19 District and Charter Enrollment by Locale

Many charter schools across the country are technically coded as their own independent school district, because they operate autonomously from the local education agency (“LEA”) in their area. This can make traditional analysis difficult when trying to understand the local context of a charter school. However, NAPCS is able to identify the traditional school districts where each charter school resides by mapping coordinates of charter schools onto school districts data files to see where they reside. For the purposes of including charter schools, we reframe “traditional school districts” as “geographic school districts.”

Since 2005, there has been steady growth in the number of LEAs with at least one charter school in their boundaries. There has also been consistent growth in the number of LEAs with multiple charter schools located in their geographic boundaries. Between 2006 and 2019, the number of LEAs with at least one charter school in their geographic district rose by almost a third. In the same period, the number of LEAs with five or more charter schools in their geographic district almost doubled.

Table 3.3: 2018-19 Charter School Locale by Race and FRPL 

The National Alliance recognizes charter school enrollment levels in two ways: absolute enrollment (i.e.: total raw number) and population share (i.e: proportion of the population of public school students in a given area). In this way, there may be jurisdictions where there are a high number of students enrolled in charter schools, but there is a very low percentage of charter school students relative to the overall public school population. To that end, we have listed in the tables below the 2018-19 top 10 geographic LEA school districts for raw charter school enrollment, charter school enrollment share, raw charter school enrollment increase (between 2017-18 and 2018-19), and charter school enrollment share increase (between 2017-18 and 2018-19). Los Angeles Unified School District (CA) and the New York City Department of Education (NY) held the highest raw charter school enrollments, while the Orleans Parish School Board (LA) boasts by far the largest charter school enrollment share nationwide, at 98.9%. In terms of growth, Clark County School District (NV) had the greatest overall increase in enrollment between 2017-18 and 2018-19, while Little Rock School District (AR), saw the greatest increase in charter school enrollment share.

Table 3.4: Top 10 Cities for Charter School Total Enrollment

Table 3.5: Top 10 Cities for Charter School Total Enrollment Share

Table 3.6: Top 10 Cities for Charter School Enrollment Increase

Table 3.7: Top 10 Cities for Charter School Enrollment Share Increase

While local school districts have administrative authority over educational and academic systems, municipal city policies and local governments can affect a broad range of factors that may impact student outcomes, including transportation, safety, housing, and access to healthcare. Given this reality, and the fact that a significantly large portion of charter school students attend urban schools, the tables below list the 2018-19 top 10 cities for charter school total enrollment, enrollment share, overall enrollment increase, and overall increase in enrollment share. Further, this analysis is also important since charter schools may enroll students from across LEA geographic school district borders, and city boundaries do not always align with those boundaries.

Table 3.8: Top 10 Districts for Charter School Total Enrollment

Table 3.9: Top 10 Districts for Charter School Enrollment Share

Table 3.10: Top 10 Districts for Charter School Enrollment Increase

Table 3.11: Top 10 Districts for Charter School Enrollment Share Increase

Since charter schools often serve different populations of students than their district school counterparts, location plays a significant role in understanding certain aspects of the sector.  Examining the characteristics of neighborhoods where charter schools are located can help contextualize school data and add nuance to analysis. Accordingly, the National Alliance Data & Research Team mapped charter schools and campuses onto U.S. Census tracts to identify neighborhood poverty levels around schools. In 2018-19, charter schools were  more likely to be located in high-poverty census tracts (43.8%) compared to their district school counterparts (24.2%). In 39 states, the share of charter schools in high poverty areas is higher than the share of district schools in high poverty areas. For 24 of those states, the difference was by more than 20 percentage points. Almost 42% of all charter school students attend schools in high poverty areas.

Table 3.12: Charter Schools and Students in High-Poverty Areas

About the Authors

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.

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.