Number of Students Attending Charter Schools Surpasses 3 Million

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Each year, as the holidays end and school is back in session, the National Alliance determines the number of currently operating charter schools and estimates the number of students who attend them. Figuring out the number of schools is not that complicated. We simply ask each state for the names of any new charter public schools that opened this schoolyear and for the names of any that were open last year, but did not re-open in the fall. To estimate the number of students, we collect charter school enrollment data from any states that have already released numbers for the current school year, typically based on counts taken in October. And, for states that have not yet released data, we estimate the number of students in each currently operating charter school, on a school-by-school basis, either based on their own growth rates or, for new schools, on state-level average growth rates and average school size.

This year, for the first time, the number of students who attend charter public schools is estimated to have surpassed 3 million. In fact, it’s closer to 3.1 million. This means that over 200,000 more children are attending charter schools this school year than attended last year and, given that the federal government estimates a total change in public school enrollment of just over 100,000 students, it also means that more parents are making the move to charter schools.

In just the last decade, charter school enrollment has nearly tripled – from 1.2 million students in 2006-07 to 3.1 million this year. In addition, 26 states, plus the District of Columbia, have at least 50 charter schools – with 17 of those having at least 100 – and nine states have at least 100,000 charter school students. That’s pretty incredible for something that didn’t exist until 1992.

The continued growth of the charter school movement is driven by an outsized, though not surprising, parent demand for high-quality schools and the ability to select which one is best for their child. We know, from a survey that we conducted last spring of 1,000 parents of school-age children, that the percentage of parents who would put their child in a charter school tomorrow, if they could, is probably about double the percentage of parents who currently do.

As the charter school movement grows and becomes a sizeable share of enrollment in more and more communities, we expect demand will grow right beside it. We also know that there are state and federal policies that restrict the ability of the movement to grow to meet that demand. Starting a school from scratch isn’t easy and takes money. Hopefully, the growing numbers of charter school students and parents will encourage policies that allow more high-quality charter public schools to open.