Charter School Enrollment Hits Record High

Published September 30, 2017

Enrollment in charters, which are publicly funded, privately managed schools, has increased by approximately 1.2 million students over the past five years. Approximately three million students attended charter schools during the 2015-16 school year. The NCES report, released in August 2017, reported nearly 6 percent of all public school students attend charter schools.

‘Positive Academic and Life Impact’

Vanessa Descalzi, director of media relations for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says charter schools continually prove their value to families.

“Public charter school enrollment has increased dramatically in the past five years, and even more so in the over 25 years since the first charter school law was authorized,” Descalzi said. “During this time, study after study has shown the positive academic and life impact that attending a public charter school can have on a student. When families see these unique schools in person and familiarize themselves with the research, it makes sense that they would demand a high-quality public option to meet the unique needs of their child and community.

“Smart policymakers listen to these families, and that’s why we’re seeing smart policy passed at the federal and state level to create an environment where impactful, accountable charter schools can open,” Descalzi said.

‘Parents Want Choice’

Aaron Smith, an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, says charters are popular because families want an alternative to traditional government schools.

“The reason charters have experienced such rapid growth is really quite simple: Parents want choice,” Smith said. “The practice of assigning kids to schools based on ZIP code is well past its expiration date, and choice mechanisms such as charters, education savings accounts, and open-enrollment policies are helping to overhaul a status quo that is fundamentally flawed.”

Failure Is an Option

Descalzi says schools should be held to high standards for the children’s sake.

“If a school isn’t doing the only thing it’s supposed to do—providing its students with a high-quality education that sets them up for success in life—then that school should close,” Descalzi said. “Every day a student is stuck in a school that is failing in this mission is an emergency. Unfortunately, too many schools are allowed to fail students year after year. This is why we need both a high-quality public option and accountability for public schools: so that a school doesn’t deny generation after generation of students the opportunity to succeed.”

Improving Student Outcomes

The authors of the 2016 study A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities and Their Impact on Student Outcomes examined student performance data from the 2014-15 school year in districts where at least one-third of students were enrolled in charter schools. The researchers found nearly all the districts had more students with proficient scores on state tests than their peer districts. Economically disadvantaged students also demonstrated higher achievement in districts with at least 30 percent charter school enrollment, the study found.

Descalzi says such student performance is a main cause of the charter boom.

“At the heart of family demand and charter school growth is the fact that charter schools are having a game-changing impact on student outcomes,” Descalzi said.

‘Lot of Work to Be Done’

Expanding choice well beyond charters is the important next challenge in school reform, Smith says.

“While charter growth is encouraging, I think we’ve only seen a glimpse of the results that parent-driven accountability could produce,” Smith said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. We continue to allocate scarce resources to underperforming schools while shortchanging those that are in high demand. School finance systems that were inadequate for the needs of the twentieth century are even less suited for the twenty-first century. Money should follow a child to the school of [his or her] choice, regardless of what type of school it is.”

Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.


National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter Public School Communities and Their Impact on Student Outcomes,” November 2016: