School Choice & Charters

Striking Teachers Are Targeting Charter Schools. But Are Charters Really a Threat?

By Arianna Prothero — February 25, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

For the second time in two years, West Virginia teachers went on strike. But unlike the first time—which set off a wave of teacher walkouts across the country—teachers weren’t demanding more pay. They wanted to block lawmakers from legalizing charter schools and a type of school voucher program.

Lawmakers gave in to the union’s demands within a few hours.

Teachers’ unions in Oakland and Los Angeles have also recently made charter school growth a central issue in their strikes.

But are the expansion of charter schools and school vouchers really an existential threat to traditional public schools? In most parts of America, it’s hard to argue that they are.

Charter schools educate only about 3 million students, or 7 percent of all public-school students, according to federal data. It’s taken charter schools more than 25 years to get to that 7 percent enrollment share—and it looks as though that growth has been slowing in recent years.

Charter school enrollment grew by 5 percent between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, one of the country’s largest charter advocacy groups. Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, charter enrollment grew by 7 percent. The year before that, it was 9 percent.

An even smaller share of families use vouchers and other related programs—tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts—to send their children to private school: only about 482,000 students, according to EdChoice, a school choice advocacy group, in 29 states. And while school choice supporters are diligently lobbying to expand the number of states that vouchers operate in, growth is still restricted to the availability of private schools and their willingness to participate.

That’s the supply side of things. On the demand side, vouchers and especially charter schools have made significant inroads into some large, urban areas. But areas with less population density struggle to support robust school choice, which requires lots of schools clustered close enough together that families can reasonably get to them.

It’s no coincidence that it’s mostly rural states that still don’t allow for charter schools 25 years into the movement: West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Vermont.

Another big driver of charter school expansion, philanthropists, are also focused on opening schools in urban areas serving low-income students.

This is not to say that charter school expansion is not a salient issue. But it depends on where you live.

In Los Angeles and Oakland—where teachers’ unions have said charter growth is hurting traditional public schools—charter schools enroll sizable shares of public school students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

In Oakland, 30 percent of students attended charter schools in the 2017-18 school year, according to the NAPCS’ latest data. In Los Angeles, it was 26 percent.

In West Virginia, lawmakers wanted to allow up to seven charter schools to open and to create 1,000 education savings accounts, a voucher-like program, for students with disabilities.

Make no mistake, this would have been an important symbolic victory for school choice advocates, especially charter school supporters who have been pressing to get charters in the state for a while.

But based on the rate of charter school growth so far, and where charters have been successful in expanding, it seems unlikely West Virginia would have been overrun by charter schools anytime soon, if at all.

Related stories:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Choice & Charters Virtual Charters in Hot Water Again. Accusations of Fraud Prompt $150M Lawsuit
Indiana officials seek to recoup more than $150 million they say was either wrongly obtained or misspent by a consortium of virtual schools.
Arika Herron, The Indianapolis Star
2 min read
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis. Rokita filed a lawsuit against a group of online charter schools accused of defrauding the state out of millions of dollars Thursday, July 8, 2021.
Indiana's attorney general Todd Rokita speaks at a news conference on Sept. 16, 2020, in Indianapolis.
Darron Cummings/AP
School Choice & Charters How the Pandemic Helped Fuel the Private School Choice Movement
State lawmakers got a new talking point as they pushed to create and expand programs to send students to private schools.
8 min read
Collage showing two boys in classroom during pandemic wearing masks with cropped photo of feet and arrows going in different directions.
Collage by Gina Tomko/EducationWeek (Images: Getty)
School Choice & Charters Opinion Taking Stock After 30 Years of Charter Schools
Rick Hess speaks with Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, on charter schools turning 30.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School Choice & Charters In Fight Over Millions of Dollars for Charter Schools, a Marijuana Tax May Bring Peace
The Oklahoma State Board of Education voted unanimously to rescind a polarizing lawsuit settlement, pending certain stipulations.
Nuria Martinez-Keel, The Oklahoman
3 min read
Money bills cash funds close up Getty