Charter schools may only make up 7% of all public schools as of 2022, but they have an incredible impact on the millions of students who attend them. And now they’ve hit another milestone.
Since the first charter school—City Academy in Saint Paul, Minnesota—opened in 1992, more than 12.3 million students have attended a public charter school. That’s 12.3 million students who had the opportunity to attend an innovative public school that is right for them and millions of families who had the agency to decide what type of school was best for their children.
While this number may be a small fraction of the over 150 million children who have attended public schools in the last 30 years, 12 million students is still significant. Especially when you consider that parents are 11 percentage points more likely to be satisfied with their choice to enroll their child in a charter school compared to a district school, according to recent nationwide polling.
This choice of education and opportunity is possible due to 30 years of forward-thinking, policy, funding, and high demand for charter schools across the United States. In the same time period, the charter school sector has grown significantly—from the first school in Minnesota to 7,700 charter schools and counting today.
Breaking Down the Data
As any education researcher knows, student-level data is not readily available. To figure out how many students have attended a charter school since City Academy opened 30 years ago, we had to be creative about accessing and understanding the data.
To start, we looked at all charter schools since 1992 and broke up the enrollment data by class. We know the kindergarten enrollment of a given school should be about the same as the number of 1st graders the following year because the same students should transition from kindergarten to 1st grade. However, we know that isn’t always the case as some students may be retained or leave to go to another school while new students may enter.
Though we cannot accurately account for all churn, we can examine the full length of each class and determine the maximum number of students who were served, thus giving us the baseline of students who were served in any given year by a charter school. By using only the maximum number of students served and not adjusting for changes in enrollment—either positive or negative—we can reach a conservative estimate.
Getting Specific – 12.3 Million Charter School Students
Between 1992 and the 2020-21 school year, close to 170,000 classes of students have made their way through a charter school. To find the total number of students, we used 29 years of Common Core data combined with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' proprietary database of charter schools and data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
For consistency and ease of replication, we only used grade enrollment data for this analysis, so we were not comparing older Common Core data with our more nuanced and complete enrollment data.
With our analysis, we are confident that charter schools have served a minimum of 12.3 million students since they first opened their doors in 1991. We are proud that charter schools have been able to serve these students and families.
And the impact of charter schools is only beginning to manifest. With over 6 million charter school alumni now eligible to vote, we are excited to see the change in store.
Jamison White is the senior manager of data and research at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.