Education pluralism: The state of public charter schools

November 4, 2022

What is a public charter school?

Charter schools are public schools that are independently run under the terms of a charter. While charter schools are chosen as an alternative to the traditional district school, they are public schools because they are funded with taxpayer money, tuition free, and accept all students dependent upon availability.

Under state or local authority, charters give schools the freedom to have a unique emphasis in education like leadership skills, the Montessori method, an expertise in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics), athletics, dual language instruction or others, while still meeting certain accountability measures.

Although the reasons for choosing a public charter school are as diverse as the families that choose them, families sometimes pursue charters when they are looking for a unique approach to learning that is tuition-free and in many cases still allows their children to be educated in-person with other students in their community. Public charter schools can also be offered through virtual learning.

A quick history

The first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, with the first public charter school in the United States opening in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992. The controversy surrounding the passage of the first charter law reflects concerns about funding and accountability that continue today. Early opposition in that state has given way to a well-established public charter school system. Minnesota now serves 63,000 pre-K to 12th-grade students in 168 schools.

A look at the nation

Since Minnesota’s pioneering days, public charter school legislation has popped up across the nation and become common in the education landscape. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws. (The states without charter school laws are Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont.)

Nationally, as of the 2019-20 school year, public charter schools serve over 3.4 million students at this point, which is 7.2% of the entire public school student population. There are now 7,700 public charter schools in the United States.

Some states have impressive statistics regarding charters. For example, in Arizona, 20% of its public-school students (one in five) attend a charter school. California has the largest raw number of students attending charter schools, with roughly 600,000 students attending a public charter school (nearly 11% of public school students). And in New Orleans, around 99% of students are in charter schools at this point.

Overall, public charter school growth continues to increase (though growth slowed after the 2015-16 school year). Unsurprisingly, the first year of the pandemic resulted in charter school growth rate being the highest since 2015-16.

At this point, public charter schools serve more students in cities than in rural locations. Additionally, a higher percentage of charter schools have student bodies that are more than 50% Black or 50% Hispanic than their traditional district school counterparts, and a higher percentage of public charters than traditional district schools were high-poverty schools. In other words, a higher proportion of public charter schools are educating historically underserved students than typically occurs among district schools.

For much of their time, public charter schools have benefited from bipartisan support, particularly under the Obama administration. But they have come under greater scrutiny in recent years in the name of accountability. The Biden administration has proposed federal regulations that would require public charter schools to meet certain requirements in order to receive federal Charter School Program funding. These proposed regulations include collaborating with their traditional district school counterparts on “best practices,” something with which neither group will likely want to comply. They also include an analysis of whether public charter schools increase segregation by economic or racial categories as well as whether there is demand for charter schools. Because these proposals are seen as an attack on public charter schools broadly, they have elicited a strong response, including over 26,000 public comments and a protest at the White House.

Public charter schools did well in the U.S. News & World Report high school rankings. The overall third best school in the nation is a public charter school in Indiana.

A look at Utah

In Utah, public charter schools were first authorized by legislation enacted in 1998. In the 2022-23 school year, there are 140 public charter schools, where over 78,700 of the state’s 674,650 public school students are enrolled. That means almost 12% of the Utah public school student population is enrolled in a charter school. (For comparison, in the 2012-13 school year there were 49,876 students enrolled in charter schools of the state’s 600,060 public school students, which is 8.3% of the population.)

While that’s an impressive chunk of students, it’s still quite a bit less than Arizona, which has the highest in the nation, at 20%. Roughly 560 public charter schools in Arizona serve over 232,000 students.

In 2019, Utah saw a drop in public charter school enrollment for the first time since the previous decade, in part due to closures of three charter schools in the state. This period led to discussions about charter school accountability in the state.

As for outcomes, Utah’s public charter schools have some of the highest and lowest performing schools in the entire state, with six charter schools ranking as the top schools in the state.

Since the pandemic, virtual public charter schools in Utah have seen significant growth – with some reduction now that the pandemic fervor has subsided. Overall, the 2020-21 school year saw the highest level of total enrollment in public charter schools: over 79,100 students. Enrollment took a dip in the 2021-22 school year but is again rising in the 2022-23 school year.

There is a general trend toward public charter school enrollment growth in the state, and Utah can likely expect to see that continue in the coming years.

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