Strategy overview

  • Leveraging autonomy to improve academic outcomes: Charter schools are publicly funded, privately operated schools that seek to leverage a high degree of autonomy to improve student outcomes. Relative to traditional public schools, evidence-based charter schools typically have longer school days, independent teacher hiring and training programs, and high, strict standards for student behavior and academic performance. Unlike traditional public schools, however, effective charter schools in most states must demonstrate that they have improved student achievement through standardized tests and other measures in order to maintain funding and continue operations.
  • Developing and refining innovative curricula: While there is significant variance across charter schools, high-performing schools often develop their own curricula and teacher training programs. Charter schools also create their own criteria and systems for hiring and evaluating teachers, though they must still be licensed like those in traditional public schools. In most cases, teachers at charter schools are non-unionized.
  • Publicly supervised and funded, privately managed: Though they receive public funding (often as part of a state funding formula on a per-student basis), high-performing, evidence-based charter schools are typically run by a non-profit entity known as a charter management organization. In some cases, a school district itself may choose to operate a charter school in an effort to innovate and apply learnings district-wide. Charter schools can be authorized by a range of institutions, including state and local education agencies, colleges and universities, and independent non-profits. Charters are typically evaluated for renewal every five years.
  • Lottery-based admission for all students: Charter schools are public schools of choice; they cannot charge tuition, and families must submit a basic application opting in to attending a particular charter school. In some cases, there are more applicants than available seats. In this situation, state laws often require charter operators to hold a randomized lottery to determine admission. Charter schools cannot selectively enroll students and must serve any student a traditional public school would, including English Language Learners and students with disabilities.
  • Providing enrichment opportunities: Many charter schools offer robust enrichment activities, especially in areas like STEM (such as coding), debate, chess, art, and athletics. Charter schools and networks with a strong development arm often run focused fundraising campaigns dedicated to specific enrichment programs.

What evidence supports this strategy?

Multiple systematic reviews and meta-analyses of rigorous evaluations show that effective charter schools can be associated with significant improvements in math, reading, and science achievement.

  • A 2018 meta-analysis of charter schools found that they improved student outcomes in math and reading relative to traditional public schools. However, findings were not consistent across grade levels.

  • A 2017 systematic review of 'No Excuses' charter schools — characterized by rigid and consistent discipline, more instructional time, and increased parental involvement — found that these schools improved math and literacy outcomes compared to traditional public schools.

  • A 2018 systematic review found that KIPP schools had positive effects on math (12 percentile points improvement) and English language arts (8 percentile points improvement) and potentially positive effects on science and social studies achievement.

Is this strategy right for my community?

Charter schools have been shown to improve outcomes predictive of upward mobility. These outcomes, identified by the Urban Institute, are effective public education, preparation for college, school economic diversity, and social capital.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for each of these outcomes using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring the effectiveness of public education in your community: Examine the average per-grade change in English Language Arts achievement between the third and eighth grades. These data are available from Stanford University’s Education Data Archive.

  • Measuring preparation for college in your community: Examine the share of 19- and 20-year-olds with a high school degree. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

  • Measuring school economic diversity: Examine the share of students attending high-poverty schools by student race or ethnicity. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal.

  • Measuring social capital in your community: Examine the number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

Best practices in implementation

  • Evaluate current and future facilities needs: The most significant challenge many charter schools face is securing adequate school space, especially as they mature and outgrow their original facility. To address this challenge, identify the appropriate size, facility type, and locations that best meet the needs of the school's student body. It is essential to be in frequent communication with the school district and a jurisdiction’s other relevant planning and facilities agencies to ensure a charter school’s space needs are met.
  • Establish school supply, transportation, and food services: In most cases, charter schools do not have access to a school district’s bus and food services or basic supplies (like desks and chairs) — all of which are critical to student access and success. During the planning phase, it is important to establish reliable, high-quality systems for securing essential supplies and services.
  • Leverage data systems for improvement and accountability: High-performing, evidence-based charter schools are often held to strict accountability standards by their authorizer and must be able to clearly demonstrate a positive impact on student achievement. Hire dedicated staff and invest in data management tools to evaluate and refine curricula, teacher and student progress, school climate, and more. The resulting analysis should be used to communicate success to the charter authorizer, families, government leaders, funders, and the general public.
  • Work with the school district: Charter schools and traditional public schools may share physical space and/or services, which presents a significant opportunity to develop a strong, mutually beneficial relationship. Charter school leaders should engage frequently with their counterparts at co-located schools and focus on identifying opportunities for collaboration, such as mentorship programs, community events, and professional development workshops.
  • Engage with families: Because charter schools have such a high degree of autonomy, leaders have a significant opportunity to incorporate feedback from family and community members into school operations. Charter schools should proactively solicit input from the community on a wide range of school operations and offerings, from curriculum to enrichment activities. Families can also help inform the school’s efforts to create a high level of cultural responsiveness in classrooms and other programming.

Evidence-based examples

Charter school network focusing on high performance in attendance, homework, support for parents, and professional development for teachers
Elementary and middle school success