Charter School Pros and Cons


Charter schools have become an increasingly prominent part of the educational landscape in the United States over the past few decades. First established in Minnesota in 1991, charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate independently from traditional school districts under a contract or “charter” with an authorizing agency. As of fall 2021, over 7,500 charter schools enrolled approximately 3.4 million students nationwide.

The growth of charter schools has sparked intense debate. Proponents argue that charters expand educational options for families, spur innovation, and promote healthy competition that lifts performance in all schools. Critics contend that charters siphon resources from traditional public schools, exacerbate segregation, and lack sufficient oversight and accountability.

As you’ll see in this essay, the truth is more nuanced. High-quality research shows that charter schools produce mixed results overall, with some charters driving significant gains and others performing poorly. The impacts depend heavily on state policies, authorizing practices, and the specific charter schools and students examined. Like district schools, charter school quality varies considerably.

To help you navigate this complex issue, we’ll take a detailed look at the major arguments for and against charter schools, grounding our discussion in the most rigorous available evidence. As you read, keep in mind that this is not a black-and-white issue. Both “sides” make some valid points that are worth considering with an open mind. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge to draw your own well-informed conclusions on this important debate that is shaping the future of K-12 education in America.

Charter schools differ from traditional public schools, based on the provided search results:

Governance and Oversight

  • Charter schools operate independently under a contract or “charter” with an authorizing agency, while traditional public schools are managed by local school boards or districts.
  • Charter schools have more autonomy and flexibility in areas like curriculum, staffing, budgeting, and school operations in exchange for increased accountability for performance.
  • Oversight for charter schools comes from the authorizing agency, while traditional public schools are overseen by elected school boards and districts.


  • Both charter and traditional public schools receive public funding, but charters typically receive less per-pupil funding (around 70-80% of what traditional public schools get on average).
  • Charter schools usually receive a higher proportion of funding from states and lower from local sources compared to traditional public schools.
  • Many charter schools need to use private fundraising to cover gaps, especially for facilities funding which they often lack access to.

Enrollment and Demographics

  • Traditional public schools must serve all students in their geographic zone, while charter schools are open to all but may use lotteries if demand exceeds capacity.
  • Charter schools tend to serve higher proportions of low-income, minority, and English language learner students in many areas. However, they serve a lower proportion of special education students on average.

Teachers and Curriculum

  • Charter schools have more flexibility in hiring teachers and may not require standard certification, while most states require certification for traditional public school teachers.
  • Charters can more easily develop their own specialized curriculum, while traditional public schools must follow state/district curriculum requirements.

The Case for Charter Schools

Proponents offer several arguments in favor of charter schools:

  1. Expanding educational options for families

A core argument for charter schools is that they provide families, especially those with low incomes, access to more high-quality educational options beyond their assigned district school. If families are dissatisfied with their district school, whether due to low academic performance, safety concerns, or a lack of specialized programs, charters offer an alternative.This is especially relevant for families that can’t afford to move to a higher-performing school district or pay private school tuition. By decoupling school assignment from residential address, charters aim to give all families the opportunity to choose the school that best fits their child’s needs.The desire for more options resonates with many parents. In a 2019 poll, 58% of parents said they wished they had more choices for their child’s education. Support is especially high among Black and Hispanic Democrats, who are more likely to live in areas with struggling schools.Comedian Tina Fey captured the sentiment when she explained her decision to send her daughter to a charter school: “I don’t even know if I have a choice, but I choose charter. I choose choice!”

  1. Spurring innovation

Another key argument for charters is that their autonomy allows them to serve as laboratories of innovation. Free from many district regulations, charters have flexibility to experiment with new educational models and practices.Many charters have leveraged this autonomy to implement promising ideas like personalized learning, project-based curricula, and extended school days and years. KIPP, the nation’s largest charter network, provides over nine hours of instruction per day, small group tutoring, and character development. Uncommon Schools has pioneered intensive teacher coaching and data-driven instruction.Some of these innovations have spread beyond charters to influence practices in district schools. For example, the Success Academy charter network developed a literacy curriculum that boosted reading scores and has since been adopted by districts across the country.As charter advocate Richard Whitmire argues, “Charters’ real contribution to American education is the R&D work they perform that can be adapted to district schools.” In this view, even if charters directly serve a small share of students, their impact is magnified by pushing the whole system to improve.

  1. Promoting healthy competition

A related argument holds that competition from charters pressures all schools, including district schools, to raise their game or risk losing students and funding. Like in other sectors of the economy, the theory is that market forces will drive out low-performing schools and spur across-the-board improvement as schools vie for enrollment.Some studies have found evidence of these competitive effects. A 2008 study of Michigan schools found that districts raised student achievement in response to competition from charters. A 2020 study found that districts in Washington state expanded their advanced course offerings after charters opened nearby.Other research has found little or no evidence of competitive effects. And there are risks that competition can have unintended consequences, such as leading districts to focus on marketing rather than improving instruction. But overall, a case can be made that charters have the potential to stimulate healthy pressure and innovation beyond their walls.

  1. Serving disadvantaged students well

While charter school performance varies widely, a compelling body of research shows that high-quality charters can produce substantial gains for disadvantaged students.A landmark 2013 study examined charter schools in 27 states and found that, on average, charters produced greater gains for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students than comparable district schools. A 2015 study of charter schools in 41 urban areas found that charters provided significantly higher levels of annual growth in math and reading, again with the largest benefits for low-income and minority students.Certain charter school models have demonstrated especially strong results. A rigorous 2013 study of KIPP middle schools found that they produced an additional 11 months of learning in math and 8 months in reading per year. A 2017 study of Boston charter high schools found that attending one increased pass rates on the state graduation exam by 13 percentage points.These results suggest that high-performing charters can be a powerful tool for advancing educational equity and closing achievement gaps. As Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist who has extensively studied charters, concludes: “The magnitude of the effects is stunning. The average charter school student in NYC gains 23 days of additional learning in math and 14 days in reading per year. This is enough to cut the Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap in half in just a few years.”

  1. Achieving strong results with less funding

Charter schools typically receive less funding per student than district schools, as they often lack access to local tax revenue and facility funding. On average, charters receive about $6,000 less per student than district schools, a gap of nearly 30%. Despite this funding disparity, many charter schools achieve strong results, as noted above. A 2014 study by the University of Arkansas found that charters are 40% more cost-effective than district schools in math and 41% more cost-effective in reading. This suggests that charters can be an efficient use of public education dollars, stretching limited funding to produce outsized impact. As Harvard economist Thomas Kane argues, “The charter school movement has demonstrated that it is possible to provide a better education at lower cost.” Of course, funding levels matter, and many charter leaders argue that their schools need more resources to reach their full potential. But the ability of some charters to excel with less funding is a point in their favor.

The Case Against Charter Schools

Critics offer several arguments against charter schools:

Some of the practices that high-performing charters use to achieve strong results may be unsustainable or difficult to scale up.

Many successful charters rely heavily on young, energetic teachers willing to work long hours for modest pay. Teacher turnover in charters is often high, raising concerns about burnout. As teachers gain experience and start families, this staffing model may prove untenable.Intensive tutoring and extended learning time, key features of some top charters, are also costly and logistically challenging to implement widely. The average charter school day is 7.5 hours, an hour longer than the typical district school day. But this extra time is expensive, and many districts have struggled to negotiate the complex politics of changing school schedules.Success Academy spends over $20,000 per student, thousands more than district schools. But as charter critics note, “Their fundraising success is dependent on wealthy donors who believe their schools are scalable and can close the achievement gap. If that’s not the case, those donors will put their money elsewhere.”In short, there are reasons to question whether the practices driving charter success can work for all schools.

As Tulane professor Doug Harris puts it, “I’m not sure that what high-performing charters are doing would be sustainable in the long run on a large scale.”Focusing on test scores at the expense of broader outcomes. Finally, critics argue that many charter schools are overly focused on boosting standardized test scores at the expense of developing well-rounded students.

The “no excuses” charter model, used by prominent networks like KIPP and Success Academy, features strict discipline, uniforms, and a college-prep curriculum.  While these schools produce strong test score gains, some worry their rigid culture comes at a cost.A 2016 study of KIPP found that its students reported lower levels of motivation, self-esteem, and enjoyment in school. Another study found that “no excuses” charters had higher rates of student attrition than district schools, especially among students with disabilities.Critics contend that charters’ laser-like focus on test scores leads them to neglect social-emotional learning, the arts, and other key dimensions of a well-rounded education. As education professor Pedro Noguera argues, “I’ve seen many charters that are very good at getting kids to sit up straight and walk in a straight line but not very good at developing their higher-order thinking skills or their social and emotional health.”

Additional Sources

Berends, M., Waddington, R. J., & Schoenig, J. (2023). School choice at the crossroads: Research perspectives. Routledge.

  • This edited volume brings together leading researchers to synthesize what is known about school choice policies, including charter schools, and their effects on student outcomes, school practices, and communities. The chapters cover a range of topics and methodological approaches