Charter Schools: Overview

Benjamin Olneck-Brown 3/1/2019

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, 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws allowing charter schools. Alabama is the most recent state to allow charter schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there were 5,997 charter schools in the 2012-2013 school year, making up 6.3 percent of all U.S. public schools. The most recent data showed 4.6 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.

For a comparison of state charter school laws explore NCSL's Interactive Guide to School Choice.

NCSL Reports

Comprehensive School Choice Policy: A Guide for Legislators (2013)

Considerable research has compared the various forms of choice to the traditional public school system at the academic, financial and governance levels. However, little information exists about how these forms of choice affect each other when they operate concurrently in a state. Since they must examine the broad range of available policies, it is helpful for legislators to understand how each type of school choice policy works, what questions to ask and what other states have proposed.

Many states are examining whether to adopt and implement school choice strategies. This guide is intended as a resource for understanding the types of school choice options states are considering and enacting, including the effects of using multiple forms of choice. School choice policies may not be appropriate for every state, and that decision is entirely up to individual state legislatures.

Charter Schools in the States (2011-12)

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 below

NCSL Webinars

"Charter School Networks: Does Profit Status Matter" | December 2014

Does profit-status have any bearing on whether charter networks can and do provide a quality education to their students? NCSL is bringing voices from all sides of this debate together to explore this question and what it means for legislatures and policymakers around the country.

View the Webinar

"Funding Strategies for Charter School Facilities" | December 2013

NCSL explores the complexities of funding charter school facilities. Experts will discuss the various strategies states have implemented to support the acquisition of facilities for charter schools including:

  • State appropriations
  • Credit enhancement
  • Debt-servicing
  • Use of school district facilities

View the Webinar