Charter schools

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Mixed Evidence

Strategies with this rating have been tested more than once and results are inconsistent or trend negative; further research is needed to confirm effects.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are managed by private organizations with a charter or contract that authorize the school to be part of the state system. Students apply to enroll and there is no cost for them to attend. Most charter schools are not subject to many of the staffing, curriculum, and budgeting requirements that apply to TPS, and instead, are held accountable for student performance results. Entities allowed to authorize charter schools vary by state, but often include local school boards, state boards or departments of education, and state universities. Some states also allow for-profit companies to authorize charter schools1, 2, 3.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased academic achievement

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is mixed evidence regarding charter schools’ effect on students’ academic outcomes. Some charter schools yield better academic outcomes than traditional public schools (TPS), and some yield worse outcomes2, 4, effects also vary significantly by location and subject area5. When effects are averaged, however, charter schools demonstrate academic outcomes similar to6, 7, 8 or slightly worse than traditional schools2, 9. Additional evidence is needed to determine effects5.

Student outcomes at individual charter schools’ vary widely4, 5, 10, and can vary more dramatically than TPS outcomes11. On average, elementary students may improve slightly more in reading and math in charter schools than in TPS4. Low income students2, 10, low-achieving students2, special education students, and students in urban areas have also demonstrated slightly larger gains4. Charter schools appear to meet the needs of students with disabilities at least as well as TPS. In some cases, students identified as English language learners (ELL) appear to be better served in TPS5. High-achieving and advantaged students have demonstrated less academic achievement in charter schools than in TPS in some circumstances2, 4. A national analysis suggests charter schools are typically higher performing than TPS in high poverty areas and lower performing than TPS in low poverty areas, which may be driven by parent selection of a charter school given their available school choices12.

A Florida-based study suggests students who attend charter high schools are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll and persist in college, and have higher earnings in their mid-20s than peers in TPS13. However, a Texas-based study associates charter school attendance with lower earnings in students’ mid-20s. Overall, no substantial differences in longer term earnings have been associated with attending charter high schools6.

A five-year study of Midwestern urban schools suggests that charter school’s effects may change over time: students transferring from TPS into charter schools had lower attendance and academic achievement for the first three years, and better attendance and academic achievement than peers in TPS in years four and five14. Overall, charter school effectiveness may improve over time compared to TPS, as more charter schools adopt the No Excuses model and schools with poor performance records close9, 15.

Some charter schools, such as No Excuses schools, can improve students’ academic outcomes more than other charter schools or TPS16, 17, 18, 19, 20. In general, charter schools that offer frequent teacher feedback, use data to assess and modify instruction, intensively tutor students, offer more instructional time than traditional schools, and maintain high expectations for behavioral and academic performance can yield stronger effects than other charter schools6, 19, 20, 21. A NYC-based study suggests that high salaries, ongoing professional development, and greater responsibilities and accountability for teachers may attract more qualified teachers17.

Academic outcomes, graduation, and college entry may also be linked to a school’s charter management organization22. One study of charter schools in Ohio, for example, indicates that schools authorized by nonprofits are associated with worse academic outcomes than those authorized by school districts, county educational service centers, or state government23.

Charter schools’ effects on TPS are inconclusive. Some studies suggest small benefits from competition and others suggest no significant effect on student achievement6. A Milwaukee-based survey suggests that traditional schools sometimes increase marketing efforts in response to charter schools24. Some charter schools are associated with increases in local student segregation by school25, others are not26. In most states, increased charter school enrollment reduces funding for TPS. Although school districts can reduce some costs on a per-student basis, many costs such as building maintenance and pensions are fixed. Such increased financial stress at TPS may influence student achievement and eventually lead to closing schools6.

Implementation Examples

As of 2017-18, over 7,000 charter schools served nearly 3.2 million American K-12 students27.

Laws allowing charter schools have been adopted in 43 states and Washington, D.C. Minnesota was the first state to adopt charter school legislation in 1991, and Alabama is the most recent state to adopt such legislation. The majority of charter schools are located in five states: Arizona, California, Florida, Ohio, and Texas1.

Implementation Resources

NCSRC - National Charter School Resource Center (NCSRC). CONNECT. Resources to build top-notch charter schools.

US ED-CSP - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED), Office of Elementary & Secondary Education. Charter school programs (CSP).

NCSL-Cunningham 2019 - Cunningham J. Charter schools: Overview. National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). 2019.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 NCSL-Cunningham 2019 - Cunningham J. Charter schools: Overview. National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). 2019.

2 Clark 2015 - Clark MA, Gleason PM, Tuttle CC, Silverberg MK. Do charter schools improve student achievement? Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 2015;37(4):419-436.

3 CER-FAQ - Center for Education Reform (CER). Just the FAQs - Charter schools.

4 CRPE-Betts 2011 - Betts J, Tang YE. The effect of charter schools on student achievement: A meta-analysis of the literature. Seattle: Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE); 2011.

5 Rapa 2018 - Rapa LJ, Katsiyannis A, Ennis RP. Charter school enrollment effects: A review of results from recent large-scale studies. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 2018;27(10):3132-3140.

6 Cohodes 2018 - Cohodes S. Charter schools and the achievement gap. The Future of Children. 2018:1-20.

7 Chabrier 2016 - Chabrier J, Cohodes S, Oreopoulos P. What can we learn from charter school lotteries? Journal of Economic Perspectives. 2016;30(3):57-84.

8 Zimmer 2012 - Zimmer R, Gill B, Booker K, Lavertu S, Witte J. Examining charter student achievement effects across seven states. Economics of Education Review. 2012;31(2):213–24.

9 Chingos 2015 - Chingos MM, West MR. The uneven performance of Arizona’s charter schools. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 2015;37(1_suppl):120S-134S.

10 CREDO-Davis 2012 - Davis DH, Raymond ME. Choices for studying choice: Assessing charter school effectiveness using two quasi-experimental methods. Economics of Education Review. 2012;31(2):225–36.

11 Mathematica-Zimmer 2013 - Zimmer R, Gill B, Attridge J, Obenauf K. Charter school authorizers and student achievement. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2013.

12 Logan 2015 - Logan JR, Burdick-Will J. School segregation, charter schools, and access to quality education. Journal of Urban Affairs. 2015;38(3):323-343.

13 Sass 2016 - Sass TR, Zimmer RW, Gill BP, Booker TK. Charter high schools’ effects on long-term attainment and earnings. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 2016;35(3): 683-706.

14 Clarke 2018 - Clarke FC, Burt WL. A study of the effects of charter schools on student achievement, attendance, and selected mitigating factors in a Midwestern state’s midsize urban school districts. Education and Urban Society. 2018.

15 NBER-Baude 2014 - Baude PL, Casey M, Hanushek EA, Rivkin SG. The evolution of charter school quality. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2014:1-46.

16 Angrist 2016 - Angrist JD, Cohodes SR, Dynarski SM, et al. Stand and deliver: Effects of Boston’s charter high schools on college preparation, entry, and choice. Journal of Labor Economics. 2016;34(2):275-318.

17 Mathematica-Furgeson 2014 - Furgeson J, McCullough M, Wolfendale C, Gill B. The equity project charter school: Impacts on student achievement. Mathematica Policy Research. 2014:1-53.

18 MDRC-Unterman 2017 - Unterman R. An early look at the effects of Success Academy charter schools. Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). 2017:1-34.

19 Angrist 2013 - Angrist JD, Pathak PA, Walters CR. Explaining charter school effectiveness. American Economic Journal. 2013;5(4):1-27.

20 Dobbie 2013 - Dobbie W, Fryer Jr. RG. Getting beneath the veil of effective schools: Evidence from New York City. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. 2013;5(4):28–60.

21 Mathematica-Furgeson 2012 - Furgeson J, Gill B, Haimson J, et al. Charter-school management organizations: Diverse strategies and diverse student impacts. Princeton: Mathematica Research Policy (MPR), Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE); 2012.

22 Mathematica-Booker 2014 - Booker K, Gill B, Sass T, Zimmer R. Charter high schools’ effects on long-term attainment and earnings. Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2014.

23 Zimmer 2014 - Zimmer R, Gill B, Attridge J, Obenauf K. Charter school authorizers and student achievement. Education Finance and Policy. 2014;9(1):59-85.

24 Loeb 2011 - Loeb S, Valant J, Kasman M. Increasing choice in the market for schools: Recent reforms and their effects on student achievement. National Tax Journal. 2011;64(1):141-64.

25 Ni 2010 - Ni Y. The sorting effect of charter schools on student composition in traditional public schools. Educational Policy. 2010;26(2):215-242.

26 Zimmer 2009 - Zimmer R, Gill B, Booker K, Lavertu S, Witte J. Do charter schools “cream skim” students and increase racial-ethnic segregation? Nashville: National Center on School Choice (NCSC), Vanderbilt University Peabody College; 2009.

27 NAPCS-David 2018 - David R, Hesla K. Estimated public charter school enrollment, 2017-2018. National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). 2018.