Charter Schools - Overview
Defining charter schools is difficult because state laws that govern them are so different. However, charter schools generally share three characteristics:
They are public schools - free to attend, publicly funded, part of the state school system, and accountable to public bodies for their results.
They are schools of choice, so they do not enroll students solely based on where they live.
They are privately managed by an organization that has a charter, or contract, with an authorizer.
State charter school laws differ with respect to which organizations can charter schools, or apply for a charter. The most common are nonprofit boards, although some states also allow for-profit companies to get charters. Charter schools have more autonomy than traditional schools. They are freed from some state and local regulations, though the level of autonomy varies widely from state to state. In return for that freedom, charter schools are held accountable for student performance. If the goals in the charter are not reached, the school should be closed and charter not renewed.
Since the first enactment of charter school legislation in Minnesota in 1991, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws allowing charter schools. Washington is the most recent state to allow charter schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 5,275 charter schools in the 2010-2011 school year, making up slightly more than 5 percent of all U.S. public schools. The most recent data showed about 3 percent of public school students attended charter schools.
There is tremendous variation across the states in the degree of autonomy charter schools have, as well as in the number of charter schools that have been established. Most advocates claim that the number of schools is related to the type of law passed. Some say more autonomy and authorizers allowed by state law produce more charter schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of charter schools are located in five states: Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio and Texas.
Charter Schools in the States
In 2011, NCSL published a series of issue briefs exploring charter schools in the states with the support of the Walton Family Foundation. The briefs address six specific charter school issues that legislators play a role in shaping: Authorizers, Caps, Finance, Facilities, Student Achievement and Teachers. You can download each brief by clicking the links on the righthand side of the screen.