Research & Commentary: States Without Charter Schools Are Falling Behind

Published June 19, 2015

All but seven states (Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia) allow for the public funding of charter schools. Charter schools are an alternative to traditional district public schools. Although charter schools are publicly funded, they are free to offer their own curriculum and have more flexibility in management structures. The demand from parents to enroll their children in charter schools is continuing to rise. 

Many states limit the number of charter schools allowed or authorized to open in a certain year. Such caps are unnecessary, as the number of charter schools should be permitted to increase and decrease with demand. Charter schools must set high standards in order to attract parents to enroll their children, and they will close if they fail to meet those expectations. Traditional public schools, by contrast, are largely able to stay open no matter how poor their students’ academic achievements may be. According to the Center for Education Reform, the states with the most successful charter school programs do not cap the number of charter schools, allow for the most public funding, and give the schools’ independent administrators the freedom and authority to run their schools without interference from state school boards. 

Regulations on the expansion of charter schools are preventing the supply from meeting demand, resulting in lotteries and long waiting lists. More than one million children are on waiting lists across the country in hopes of enrolling in a charter school. 

The states without charter schools are largely rural. Charter schools are often seen as being beneficial only to urban areas with low-income families and dense populations. But those states should reconsider, given that nearly all states without charter schools rank in the bottom half of the state education rankings prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council. The only exception is Vermont, which offers a robust voucher-like system for the state’s rural areas. 

School choice creates competition among schools, which drives academic success. In 2015, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) conducted a study of urban charter schools and found students gained an additional 40 days of learning in math and 28 days in reading compared to their counterparts in traditional public schools. 

Laws hampering the innovation and expansion of charter schools restrict parents’ ability to enroll their children in schools that best suit their educational needs. Legislators should strive to remove funding barriers for charter schools and other education alternatives, allow unlimited expansion of qualified charter schools with no cap, and ensure a blanket waiver so schools have full control of their operations and remain independent of state school boards. 

The following documents provide additional information about charter schools and school choice.

Overview of the Urban Charter School Study
A study done by CREDO finds students are learning more in reading and math in charter schools than in traditional public schools. 

Meeting the Demand for Charter Schools
Nina Reese, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, discusses the restrictions on charter schools and notes those restrictions have resulted in long waiting lists for potential students. She urges removing caps on the number of charter schools and equalizing funding between traditional public schools and charter public schools. 

More States Join the School Choice Movement
More states are creating programs to implement school choice, with Alabama recently passing a bill allowing charter schools and Montana passing a bill allowing tax credit scholarships students can use at either public or private institutions. 

Just the FAQs: Charter Schools
The Center for Education Reform discusses the unique qualities and advantages of charter schools, answering questions about how they are funded and how their performance ratings measure up to those of traditional public schools. 

States Embracing School Choice See Better Outcomes
In its most recent Report Card on American Education, the American Legislative Exchange Council found the states with the best student achievement had implemented legislation for school choice and charter schools. States with limited options ranked poorly and are falling behind other states. 

States Consider School Choice
Dr. Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation argues school choice “allows students to find the schools that best match their needs, and introduces healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused.” 

Measuring Charter Performance: A Review of Public Charter School Achievement Studies
Studies using the best data and most sophisticated research techniques show charter schools outperform comparable traditional public schools, concludes a study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The most recent studies also demonstrate charter schools produce greater achievement gains in math and reading than traditional public schools. 

The Effect of Charter Schools on Student Achievement  
On average, children attending charter elementary schools perform better in reading and math than those in traditional public schools, finds a University of Washington study of the highest-quality research available. Students at charter middle schools outperform their traditional counterparts in math. The study’s authors, economists Julian Betts and Emily Tang, reviewed 40 studies of charter school achievement that randomized students studied through lotteries and accounted for a student’s history of achievement using value-added comparisons, research considered the most rigorous by scientific standards.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News website at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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