Parents using the public school system in the U.S. had little choice where to send their children to school as recently as a few decades ago.
The rise of charter schools changed the education marketplace and provided new options, even for parents without the means or desire to send their students to private schools.
“Charters add more options and different models of schools to the system, which usually gives parents more choice,” James Bacon, former staffing director at Boston Public Schools and current director of outreach and operations at education technology firm Edficiency, wrote in an email. “In many ways, the biggest pros and cons of charter schools stem from the same fact: That in most cases, charter schools are given more freedom than traditional public schools.”
The District of Columbia and 45 states have laws that allow public charter schools. But in many places, there are no local charter school options – just traditional public and private schools. For families able to consider charter schools, here are some things to know.
The Difference Between Charter and Public Schools
Charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools, but they differ from traditional public schools in key ways. Comparing charter schools to public schools requires weighing a few considerations.
First, charters have more flexibility. Rather than being part of a public school district, which dictates curriculum and standards in all schools, charters operate autonomously through individual agreements, or charters, with state or local governments that set rules and student performance standards.
Given the ability to operate through these agreements, individual charter schools can tailor their curriculum, academic focus, staffing ratios, discipline policies and other matters generally decided at the school district or state board level. In exchange for that flexibility, charter schools are supposed to be accountable to parents and the state or local governments that authorize them.
“The flexibility that charter schools are afforded in our system means that they try different things, with varying results,” says Frank Adamson, an associate professor of education policy and leadership studies at California State University—Sacramento who has studied charter school performance.
Some schools may focus on arts or theater. Others may emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.
While charter schools generally operate independently, some work closely with or are overseen by the local public school district, which could determine some of the curriculum and structure, says Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
Charter Schools Are Growing
The charter school movement gained prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has been gaining ground since. Charter schools operated in 35 states in the 2000-2001 school year, and that number has risen to 45, according to the Education Commission of the States. West Virginia adopted a charter school law most recently, in 2019.
Charter school school enrollment has grown nationally in recent years, particularly over the past decade. Nearly 3.7 million students were enrolled in charter schools during the 2021-2022 school year, or about 7% of all public school students, according to NCES. That’s up from about 2 million students enrolled in charters in the 2011-2012 school year, or about 4% of public school students.
In the early 2000s, “there were a lot of investments made by the federal government through startup funds and by foundations in really high-quality charter school models and expansion replication of those models,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, an education research organization inside Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “There was a lot of enthusiasm about making those opportunities more accessible to more kids, and there was demand as well. I think those two dynamics came together and we saw that pretty explosive growth.”
Charter Schools and Equity
Many charter schools were created as a way to close the achievement gap between white students and most students of color, experts say. Some still view that as a core mission.
Lake says the ones that have made that a priority are making good on that initiative.
“The studies that have been done about charter schools in urban areas show pretty unequivocally that they have been doing their job in terms of narrowing the achievement gap,” she says. “I would not say closing it, because that’s a tall order, but we should still aim high.”
Many of the same problems that plague traditional public schools, however, are found in charters. New Orleans, where nearly all public schools became charters after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, still deals with a racial achievement gap despite the increased funding and promises of improvement, says Adamson, who has studied the impact of charter schools in New Orleans.
In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools.
A 2013 study, also by CREDO, had found that traditional public school students performed either slightly better or the same as charter school students. However, the center’s 2023 study that examined student performance in 6,200 charter schools from 2014 to 2019 found that those trends are changing. Using a traditional 180-day academic year as a measuring stick, the study found that on average, charter school students gained the equivalent of 16 days of learning in reading and six days in math on their traditional school counterparts.
Getting Into a Charter School
Charter schools generally don’t require entrance exams, interviews or auditions, which often come with private school admission. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to get into.
Many high-performing charters draw large numbers of applications, and some use a lottery to determine which students can enroll. Even getting a place in such a lottery can require planning. Families should be aware that schools have application deadlines, sometimes as early as November of the school year before kids would start.
Parents should determine if their child is eligible to attend the school and ask what they need to do to apply for the specific school they hope to attend, Valant says. Also, how these lotteries work can differ by locale, with some areas giving advantage to families who meet certain criteria.
“Most also have clauses in their charters to give preference for siblings and/or members of the charter board,” Valant says, noting that such admissions practices may also present inequitable scenarios for families. “So they do not and cannot always take any child that wants to attend, whereas traditional public schools do have to take all students.”
Charters and Test Scores
Both charter schools and public schools depend on test scores to show their value. Federal law has pushed traditional public schools to focus on testing, but the competitive model of charters means “they live or die on their test scores,” Adamson says.
“I think the argument could be made that their accountability metrics are often tied heavily to these scores and required for them to have their charter renewed, with the threat of the school being shut down if they don’t perform,” Bacon says. “So it’s certainly something to be mindful about when exploring a charter school option.”
Choosing Between a Charter and Public School
Education experts recommend that parents do research into charters, visit the schools and compare them carefully to the public-school alternative. Look beyond test scores and talk to educators who work at the schools and parents who send their children there.
“In my experience, parents should know what matters most to them, and then ask for quantitative and qualitative data around those points if they cannot find it online,” says Bacon, who serves on the school board near his home in Wisconsin.
Quantitative data includes test scores, graduation rates, college attendance rates and similar metrics, he says. Qualitative information could include surveys that measure student and family satisfaction, the type of curriculum they use, their beliefs and their policy on discipline.
“The charter school issue has really gotten politicized over the years, and I think it’s unfortunate because it’s a different kind of public school, but it is a public school,” Lake says. “For that reason, a parent should not close down the option of looking at a charter school and seeing if it might be a good fit for the child. The labels don’t really mean anything here. I usually advise people not to worry about the label, worry about the results. Worry about whether it’s a good fit.”