17 Surprising Charter Schools vs Public Schools Statistics

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Charter schools have become more popular in the past decade.

More and more of them are cropping up in neighborhoods near us. But with more of them, more questions pop up?

Are they better? What is their purpose? Can just anyone go there? Do our property tax dollars go to only public schools?

How do charter schools get funded?

If we send our kids to a charter school do our property tax dollars to that school?

There are a lot of questions surrounding charter schools. There’s also a lot of debate and strong opinions on both sides.

In this post, we’re putting aside opinion and simply looking at the facts surrounding charter schools. Specifically, we’re looking at charter schools vs public schools statistics.

That way you can make the most informed decision possible on where to send your child.

What is the difference between a charter school and a traditional public school?

Charter schools, sometimes called public charter schools, are public schools but they are not associated with the public school district.

They still have to meet certain state and local standards, but they may operate a little differently than the public school nearby.

Charter schools still administer tests, including STAAR tests. The charter also gets reviewed periodically and can be revoked if they are not following the guidelines.

Because so many states and cities regulations are different, you’ll need to check locally to see how your schools may differ though.

Who can attend a charter school and does it cost money?

Like all public schools, they are free to attend as they are not private schools.

The organization running the school(s) has an agreement, or charter, with the state, city or district which spells out how they will run their school.

That being said, unlike a public school where you can attend if you are within a certain district or area, charter schools often allow kids to attend from anywhere in the area.

For that reason they sometimes have more students wanting to go there than they have space. Thus many operate on a lottery system to get in, so it’s not guaranteed the way traditonal public school admission is.

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Is a Charter School better than public schools?

Which type of school is better is the million dollar question.

To proponents of charter schools, they will tell you that charter schools are simply providing a much-needed alternative to public schools. They feel that charter schools simply offer parents a choice where no choice was previously available.

Like a true free-market economy, it forces public schools to step up their game if they want to compete.

The fact that public schools have been heavily criticized for decades should not come as a surprise.

Public schools get criticized for:

  • Low teacher salaries
  • High teacher turnover and burnout
  • Teacher shortages sometimes mean keeping ineffective teachers
  • High student to teacher ratios
  • Some schools focus almost solely on athletics at the expense of education
  • The ever-increasing focus on standardized testing over imparting actual knowledge and real-life skills

But proponents of public schools are equally as critical, claiming that charter schools are destroying our education system and causing the demise of the public school system (by pulling students, and thus funding out of the public schools).

So which type of school is best?

When putting aside opinion and looking purely at the charter schools vs public schools statistics, the results vary.

US News and World Report recently published an in-depth study of the Best US High Schools. They looked at overall performance and how well they prepared students for high school. The study analyzed over 20,000 schools in the US including both public and public charter schools.

Of the 20,548 schools that made it to the Gold, Silver or Bronze category in the report, 2194 were charter schools. 17,455 were public schools. The balance was made up of magnet schools.

When looking exclusively at the gold level; the best of the best, 300 were public schools vs 120 charter schools.

The immediate takeaway here is that public schools still are more than capable of providing an excellent education.

But considering that there are only 6,900 charter schools in the US compared to 98,817 public schools, a very high percentage of charter schools ranked well on the study.

Also noteworthy is the 2017 Teacher of the Year according to the Council of Chief State School Officers was, in fact, a charter school teacher.

How charter schools get funded

Charter schools are public schools.

Thus, just like regular public schools, they get funding based on enrollment.

They get funding from the district & state based on the number of students attending.

Ultimately this is the key to why public schools sometimes go to great lengths to criticize and lobby against charter schools.

For every student who leaves a public school to attend a charter school, funding transfers from that public school to the charter school. Since the funding pie is finite, both sides are fighting for a greater piece of the pie.

All that being said, the charter school funding does vary from state to state. Different cities within a state can also vary in terms of how funding is set.

In the US as a whole, charter schools get funding that is about 64% less than public schools in the same areas. This provides charter schools an average of  $7,131 per student compared to $11,184 per student in public schools.

Unlike most public schools, typical charter schools do not get money to build the school building.

Only a few states provide money to build charter schools. While some new charter schools are able to use existing public school district buildings, most rely on buying or leasing real estate such as old department stores.

Recently the federal government passed legislation providing additional funding to help charter schools with start-up costs, but many remain significantly under-funded.

In addition, many states offer grant funding to schools who provide a higher percentage of free or reduced lunches to students who qualify.

Thus many, but certainly not all charter schools cater to lower income families to receive a higher level of funding.

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So let’s review the . . . 

17 Surprising Charter Schools vs Public Schools Statistics

1. 56.5% of charter schools are located in cities

2. 10% of charter schools are in rural areas

3. 29% of public schools are in rural areas

So clearly public schools do a better job of serving rural communities

4. The first public charter school was established in Minnesota in 1991

5. 43 states plus Washington DC have established laws allowing charter schools to operate

Figure 3. Percentage of all public school students enrolled in public charter schools, by state: Fall 2015

6. As of this writing, the states that DO NOT allow charter schools are: 

  • Kentucky
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Vermont
  • West Virginia

7. Between the years 2000 and 2016, charter schools increased from 2% of all public schools to 7%

8. The total number of charter schools increased from 2,000 to 6,900 during those same years

9. The number of public school students attending a charter school went from 1% in 2000 to 6% by 2015

The big takeaway from these numbers is that charter schools are becomming more and more popular and will continue to take a larger slice of the pie.

10. The states with more than 10% of all public school students attending charter schools are:

  • Washington DC
  • Utah
  • Colorado
  • Louisiana
  • Arizona
  • Deleware

11. The states with the least amount of students attending a charter school are:

  • Washington state
  • Wyoming
  • Kansas
  • Iowa
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • Maine

Those results are not surprising since we already noted that public schools do a better job of serving rural communities which make up good portions of some of the above states.

12. California has the largest number of students attending charter schools at 544,293 (8.7% of the total student body)

13. Washington DC has the highest percentage of the total student body attending charter schools (42.7%)

14. Since 2000, Hispanic enrollment at charter schools has almost doubled, going from 19% of the student body to 32%

  • Hispanic enrollment at public schools represent 24.6% of the student body compared to the 32% at charter schools

15. Also since 2000, White enrollment in charter schools has declined 23% and Black enrollment has declined 18%

  • Overall the White population at charter schools is 34.9% of the student body, compared to 51.1% of public schools
  • The black population at charter schools is 27.1% of the student body compared to 15% of public schools
  • Other races represent less than 5% of the charter school student body

16. Income level and student enrollment – Free or Reduced lunch charter schools vs public schools statistics

  • To be eligible for free or reduced lunches, families of students must meet the Federal income poverty guidelines
  • The lower the family household income, the larger the reduction in school lunch prices
  • Both charter schools and public schools have about 20% of eligible students who receive up to a 25% reduction in school lunches
  • Public schools have a higher percentage of students eligible for between a 25.1 and 75% reduction in school lunch prices
  • Charter schools have 52% more students eligible for over a 75% reduction than public schools

17. Charter schools vs public schools statistics on GreatSchools.org

Greatschools.org is a site that gives a grade between 1-10 to all schools. The score is based on test score, academic progress, college preparedness and a host of other factors.

But it also allows parents, teachers, and students to add reviews as well.

I personally check the site for every school my kids have ever attended. While I don’t think it’s the final verdict on whether a school is good or not, it is a great source for charter schools vs public schools statistics.

For my comparison, I looked at how elementary schools in the US scored, comparing charter to public schools.

  • In looking exclusively at elementary schools, 4480 charter schools show up on GreatSchools
  • 1030 of those 4480 schools are currently unrated (23%)
  • 1044 have scores between 1-3 (23%)
  • 1386 have scores between 4-6 (31%)
  • 1020 have scores of 7 or higher (23%)

By contrast, when searching for public elementary schools, I see the following:

  • A total of 56,293 elementary schools come up
  • 9935 schools are currently unrated (23%)
  • 11,201 schools have scores between 1-3 (20%)
  • 21,117 schools have scores between 4-6 (38%)
  • 14,040 schools have scores of 7 or higher (25%)

The big charter schools vs public schools statistics takeaway here for me is that whether charter or public school, the majority of schools fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Public schools do have a very slight edge in that they have a smaller percentage of low scoring schools and slightly higher percentage of top performing schools.  Where public schools show up the strongest in the charter schools vs public schools statistics is in the middle ground of scores of 4-6.

Having said all that, my own kids have attended schools with ratings as low as 2 and still gotten a great education.

Ultimately it comes down to the quality of the teacher more than just numbers.

The truth about charter schools in my own life

In my own life, I have 3 daughters, 2 of which are school-age.

They currently attend public school, but we did spend 3 years in a charter school.

Ultimately while we enjoyed our time there and met some great teachers, we felt the move back to public school was the right choice for us.

We made the choice to leave the charter school for a variety of reasons, but they included:

  • No busses mean we had to drop them off and pick them up
  • When we moved a significant distance from the school, lack of transportation became problematic
  • They did a half-day early release on Wednesdays which was also problematic for pickup (coordinating around work schedules)
  • The school was significantly under-funded compared to the public schools we’ve attended (a very minimal library and gym in particular)
  • Class sizes and teacher/student ratios were higher than we were used to
  • The school moved to cater more and more to low-income students
    • We don’t have an issue with low income since both my wife & I grew up that way. But by focusing on that (they get additional funding) that often means less parental involvement in the school (since both parents often work full-time).  Reduced parental involvement also can impact student performance & behavior. Thus we saw more challenging classrooms (in terms of behavior) than we typically have seen in the public schools we’ve attended

That being said, I think all parents should have the right to choose whatever type of school makes sense for them and their family.

Limiting choices only hurts the kids.

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Did I cover all the Charter Schools vs Public Schools Statistics you were looking for?

In this post, we reviewed the top charter schools vs public schools statistics.

We put the debate aside and looked at the cold, hard facts surrounding both types of schools. But we also answered some key questions around whether charter schools are a better alternative, how they get funded and why they exist.

Do you send your kids to a public school or a charter school? What has been your experience so far?

Join the discussion anytime by leaving a comment.

If you like this post, please consider sharing on Facebook, because if it helped you, it just might help someone else!

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charter schools vs public schools statistics Jeff Campbell Middle Class Dad bio

Sources used in the research for these charter schools vs public schools statistics:

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

4 thoughts on “17 Surprising Charter Schools vs Public Schools Statistics

  1. The public school where I work is considered a title 1 school and we have very few behavior issues. Parents are extremely helpful and involved. I love my school. THank you for writing this article.

    1. Hi Carolyn

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! I appreciate it. It was an interesting article to write and research and it’s also been interesting to see the responses to it (most of which are on Facebook). My own experience at public and charter schools has been mixed on both sides, so mostly I think parents should have the option that fits their needs the best.

      Thanks again for being here!


  2. I live in Pennsylvania. I know there are several charter schools in Philadelphia, but I’m not aware of any in my area or other rural areas. I’ve heard good things about the charter schools in Philly. My daughter just started kindergarten last week so this is a topic that’s on my mind. Fortunately, our school district, and specifically her elementary school, have good ratings.

    1. Hi Marc

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! I lived in the Philly area myself from age 2 to almost 11 (mostly Bucks Country area) so I do recall some of the more rural aspects of the area. I’m glad to hear the schools are good in your area. Thanks for checking out my post. I appreciate it!


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