State Policy Network
Charter schools 101

Charter schools are an education option open to students in most, but not every state. But while charter schools have been around for three decades, most Americans are not very familiar with what they are, how they work, and who they help.

This introduction to charter schools can fix that. Let’s take a look.  

What are charter schools?

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are independently run. These schools contract or “charter” with a charter school authorizer—which can be a nonprofit organization, company, government agency, or university. That authorizer sets the standards for the school, such as vision, educational-focus, and curriculum, and keeps the school accountable to those standards. If the charter school does not perform well, it may lose its funding and close.

One of the benefits of charter schools is that they are all different, and often base their curriculum on a particular subject or on the needs of the students in their community. For example, some charters focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education while others focus on the arts.

How are charter schools different from public schools?

Charter schools are public schools, but they differ from traditional public schools in some key ways.

Why were charter schools created?

Minnesota created the country’s first public charter school in 1991 to give low-income families more education options. Some families in St. Paul and Minneapolis weren’t satisfied with their public school’s performance and wanted an alternative. Lawmakers passed the country’s first charter school law to give these families more options and autonomy in how their child’s school is run.

What states allow charter schools?

Since Minnesota pioneered the nation’s first charter school in 1991, nearly all states have followed and passed laws that allow the creation of charter schools. In fact, 45 states now have charter school laws on the books. The only states that don’t allow charter schools are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont.

How many charter schools are there?

The United States has more than 7,000 charter schools that serve more than three million students. California has the most charter schools of any state.

What are the benefits of charter schools?

Proponents of charter schools often note charters improve academic performance. A recent Harvard study found that overall students are advancing at a faster pace in charter schools – especially Black students and students from low-income backgrounds. Another study found that charter schools can “produce large positive effects” on long-term earnings and college attainment. Studies have also found that students learn more from teachers of their own race, and charter schools hire a higher percentage of minority teachers than traditional schools.

Who do charter schools help?

By providing another tuition-free education option, charter schools benefit all families, low-income families and families whose children do not thrive in a traditional school setting in particular. These parents, who normally don’t have a choice in where their child goes to school, are now provided with an alternative.

What are the arguments against charter schools?

Some opponents argue public charter schools divert money and resources away from traditional public school districts. With less money going to district schools, those schools will have to cut costs, increase class sizes, or in some cases, close altogether. Other opponents point out that a significant amount of charter schools close down after a few years of operation, either from mismanagement or other reasons.

How can parents apply to send their child to a charter school?

Parents who are interested in sending their child to a charter school can visit this list of state charter support organizations for information on how to sign up.

Fast Facts on Charter Schools:

Related Resources

Charter Schools

What Are Charter Schools?

What is a Charter School?
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools

A Guide to the Charter Sector of Minnesota Public Education
The Center for Policy Design

Policy Issues: K-12 Education
Organization: State Policy Network