Reformer ToolboxLogin

CancelLost your password?

All about Charter Schools

• Adam Peshek

During National School Choice Week, ExcelinEd’s Adam Peshek is highlighting unique aspects of educational choice policy. Today, Adam explores charter schools.

Check out related posts on education savings accountstax-credit scholarshipsways the federal government can support school choice and opportunities for states to advance school choice through ESSA.


This year is the 25th anniversary of the first charter school in the U.S. Over the past quarter of a century, charter schools have grown at a steady rate; these schools now serve more than 5 percent of all public school students in the country. This is especially significant considering the parents of the more than 2.6 million charter school students had to actively choose to send their children to their particular school.

charter school enrollments by year


Charter schools are tuition-free public schools open to all students. They are publicly funded and held to state academic and financial standards. Unlike traditional public schools, however, charter schools are run independently of school districts and, instead, operate under a performance contract with an authorizer (a district, the state, or another approved entity).

The charter construct is simple, yet profoundly different from traditional public schools. In exchange for more operational autonomy, charter schools are held accountable for student success. If a charter school does not meet the terms of their contract, the school is eventually closed or turned over to another operator. If it is successful, it is offered the opportunity to expand to serve more students.

Charter schools are able to break the one-size-fits-all mold of the traditional public school system. They are able to innovate by creating unique school cultures and methods of teaching. Charters can adapt based on the needs of students. A charter school can be focused on college or career prep, STEM education, the arts, education for children with autism, and many other areas. They can be cutting edge high-tech schools that use blended learning, or they can provide a classical education centered around the great books of history.

Charter Schools & Student Achievement

In 2015, the National Charter School Resource Center, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed five major studies of student achievement and found that:

Taken together, these five recent studies paint a picture of charter school students who perform as well as or better than the comparison group, although there are some differences in performance by sub-group. Student performance in charter schools is, in general, higher than student performance in the comparison group for three groups that have historically lagged behind: low-income students, urban students, and students with low prior achievement levels.

Later that year, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that students in urban charter schools gained 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 days in reading compared to traditional district public school peers. This is important to note, since more than half of charter schools are located in urban areas, with some cities seeing a significant share of students attending charter schools.

charter school enrollment share

Operating on Less Funding

Despite their impact, popularity and status as a tuition-free public school, charter schools receive significantly less financial support than their district-run counterparts. A 2014 study by the University of Arkansas found that, on average, charter schools receive 28.4% less per student than district public schools—or $3,814 less per student each year. This inequity is largely due to charters not being able to receive the local tax revenue (primarily property taxes) that are generated for district public schools. According to the University of Arkansas researchers, this results in charter schools receiving an average of $1,780 per student from local sources, while traditional district schools receive $5,230.

Accordingly, one of the largest advocacy efforts for charter school supporters across the country is to find ways to make funding more equitable for charters. This has been approached in a number of different ways, including ways to provide facilities funding for charters, efforts to increase the per-student operational costs, funding for transportation and more.

One state tackling this problem in 2017 is Colorado, where lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would require school districts to share education funds generated through local taxes with charter school students.

For more information on charter schools, see our panel on the past, present and future of charter schools at the 2016 National Summit on Education Reform.

About the author

Adam Peshek @AdamPeshek

Adam Peshek is Managing Director of Opportunity Policy at ExcelinEd, where he provides strategic support to state leaders interested in developing, adopting, and implementing policies that increase educational options for children. He has provided expert testimony in more than a dozen state legislatures and is a frequent commentator on ESAs, school choice, and education policy across the country. He is also the is the co-editor of the first published volume on ESAs, Education Savings Accounts: The New Frontier in School Choice. Adam currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia and is a Senior Fellow with the Beacon Center of Tennessee.