What charter school growth means for cities and neighborhoods

By Megan Gallagher and Simone Zhang :: April 15th, 2014


Charter schools are one of a number of school reform strategies that aim to expand choices for families. Other school choice policies include open enrollment, magnet or alternative schools, private school vouchers, tax credits for households paying for private school, and homeschooling. Although the number of cities with open enrollment and magnet schools is growing, charter schools represent the most prevalent type of school choice strategy in the United States today.

Charter schools are independently governed and run public schools that are supported with public funds. In the 2011-12 school year, there were about 5,700 charter schools in 42 states serving over 2 million children. That represents a 186 percent increase in the number of charter schools and a 359 percent increase in the number of students attending charter schools since the 2000-01 school year.

Charter school students still represent a small proportion of all students in the US (4.2 percent), but the speed at which their numbers are growing and where these students are located raise important questions for students, families, neighborhoods, and cities.

Where are charter schools located?

Charter schools are more prevalent in cities than they are in suburban or rural areas; 55 percent are located in central cities (compared with 24 percent of traditional schools), 29 percent are located in suburbs and towns (compared with 42 percent of traditional schools), and 16 percent are located in rural areas (compared with 34 percent of traditional schools). Their reach is increasing, too—they represented 12 percent of all public schools in cities in 2011-12, up from 7.5 percent in 2005-06.


This pattern is also reflected in enrollment patterns. A greater proportion of students attend charter schools in cities (8 percent) than in the suburbs, towns, and rural areas. The map below illustrates where the concentration of students attending charter schools is greatest, highlighting distinct state patterns that largely reflect differences in charter legislation.

What does charter school growth mean for cities?

Right now, there is little empirical evidence about how charter schools will affect neighborhoods and cities. We don’t know how growing demand for charter schools affects neighborhood residents or institutions. We don’t know how families communicate or build trust with their neighbors in places where children attend many different schools. And we don’t know whether charter school choices in cities will change where families with children choose to live and stay.

What we do know is that although the proportion of public school students attending charter schools is currently still relatively small, their growth in cities will likely have important implications for cities and their neighborhoods.


  1. The Roundup for April 15th, 2014 | claim money trading  ::  9:24 pm on April 16th, 2014:

    [...] A new report found charter school students make up just 4.2 percent of students nationwide, but it is on a [...]

  2. Maps: Charter School Reality Check [There Just Aren't That Many] | Educational Policy Information  ::  4:07 pm on April 17th, 2014:

    [...] this isn’t a map of T-Mobile’s awful cell phone coverage. It’s an Urban Institute map of charter school participation posted by KnowMore. Overall, charters make up just 4 percent of [...]

  3. Lydia Lohrer  ::  6:20 pm on April 17th, 2014:

    Naturally charter school enrollment will go up.
    Although taxpayers pay for both, public schools can’t hand pick students. Charter can choose
    Public schools have been the brunt of bad publicity and shallow reporting.
    Charters also have the advantage of private backers funding ads about how great they are and promoting good PR.

  4. Roger Moss  ::  2:41 pm on April 18th, 2014:

    Charter schools are public schools and do not get to hand pick their students.

  5. From ward to ward, where do DC kids go to school?  ::  10:58 am on April 25th, 2014:

    [...] with nationwide averages, DC has a significantly higher percentage of children attending charter schools. But from ward to ward, as one charter school opens, another one (or two) may close its doors. For [...]

  6. When neighbors are no longer classmates, what happens to the community?  ::  11:08 am on May 23rd, 2014:

    [...] Many metropolitan areas and neighborhoods are following in DC’s and Kenilworth Parkside’s footsteps, allowing parents to select from an array of public charter schools, magnet schools, and other public schools with open-enrollment policies. These schools might be in the student’s neighborhood, but are more often in an adjacent neighborhood, or across town and with classmates from dozens of neighborhoods. As a result, the link between where a student lives and where she attends school is evolving. [...]