What is a Charter School Lottery?

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Charter school student in classroom

Charter schools give families an opportunity to choose the school experience that best fits their needs and—like every other public school—they are tuition-free for any student to attend.

So it’s no surprise that charter schools are in high demand. In 2017-18, nearly 3.2 million students attended a charter school, but an estimated 5 million more would attend charter schools if they had the option.

When charter schools have more students who want to attend than they have seats available, they use a lottery system to determine their enrollment. 

So, what is a charter school lottery?

Typically, a charter school will hold an enrollment period when parents can register their children online or in-person. If there is enough room for every interested student, the school does not need to hold a lottery. Unlike district magnet schools, charter schools do not have any kind of admissions process, which means students do not need to worry about essays, interviews, or auditions.

If a lottery is necessary, the charter school will begin its random drawing process, either handling the applications manually, or using a computer program.

Some areas have very popular charter school lottery systems, such as New York City, where during the 2013-14 school year, about 69,000 students applied for 18,600 spots. For every seat available, there were about four students vying for that spot—indicating the continued need for charter sector growth.

What next?

Once the school has notified the selected students, families have the option to accept or decline the offer. In general, there is no limit to the number of offers a student may receive from different charter schools and being chosen for one school does not limit the chances of being accepted to another. The school will place students who are not selected on a wait list.

Is one student favored more than another?

A typical charter school lottery is ‘blind,’ meaning that every student who signs up has an equal chance of getting in. However, there are some circumstances which will “weigh” in a student’s favor.

Charter schools may give preference to returning students, students with siblings attending the school, and certain at-risk groups.

The ability to give preference toward disadvantaged students is crucial to schools whose mission it is to serve certain populations like English learners or economically disadvantaged students.

Please check out the Lottery Procedures Ranking page of our Model Law report for state-specific information.


Adam Gerstenfeld is a research fellow at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.


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