U.S. public, private and charter schools in 5 charts (2024)

U.S. public, private and charter schools in 5 charts (1)

While children in the United States are guaranteed a free education at their local public school through state constitutional law, many families weigh other educational options for their children. Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended families’ usual routines, 36% of parents with K-12 students say they considered multiple schools for their child in the 2018-19 school year.

Students’ school environments vary widely – sometimes even for children living in the same community – depending on whether they attend traditional public, private or charter schools.

Here are some key distinctions between these three types of schools, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). All figures reflect the most recent school year with data for all three types of schools.

How we did this

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to better understand how U.S. students’ school experiences might differ depending on whether they attend a traditional public school, a private school or a charter school.

Data comes from the Institute of Education Sciences’ National Center for Education Statistics. We used the most recent year in which data is available for all three school types.

Public, private and charter schools include those that teach students in kindergarten through 12th grade, unless otherwise specified. Racial categories used in this analysis include those who report being a single race and non-Hispanic. Hispanics are of any race. National School Lunch Program data for 2021-22 is not available for Alaska.

What’s the difference between public, private and charter schools?

Until a few decades ago, parents with kids in elementary, middle or high school could choose to send them to either a traditional public school or a private one. More recently, many states have added a third option: public charter schools.

  • Traditional public schools are taxpayer funded, are tuition free and must adhere to standards set by a school district or state board of education. These are the most common schooling option in the U.S.
  • Private schools are known for being selective, religiously affiliated or sometimes both, and charge tuition rather than receive public money. In addition to tuition dollars, private schools may be funded through a combination of donations, endowments or grants from other private sources. As a result, they have more autonomy when it comes to curriculum and other academic standards. During the 2021-22 school year, about three-quarters of private school K-12 students (77%) attended a religiously affiliated school. The largest share went to Catholic schools, which accounted for 35% of all private school enrollment. Another 23% of private school students attended secular institutions.
  • Public charter schools are legally allowed to operate in nearly all states, plus the District of Columbia, as of 2024. Like traditional public schools, these are taxpayer funded and tuition free. They’re open to any student who wishes to enroll. But unlike their traditional counterparts, agreements – or charters – with the state or local government allow them flexibility when it comes to curriculum and other standards. They also may turn students away due to space constraints.

Differences exist in the size and locale of each type of school, NCES data from the 2021-22 school year shows.

Traditional public schools tend to be larger than the other types. For instance, 39% of public schools enroll 500 or more students, compared with 32% of charter schools and 8% of private schools. And while 31% of public schools have fewer than 300 students, 44% of charter schools and 82% of private schools do.

Public schools are relatively evenly distributed across urban, suburban and rural areas, while most charter and private school campuses are located in either cities or suburbs.

(Traditional public and charter school environment data includes prekindergarten students, who account for less than 1% of enrollment at these types of schools.)

Where is enrollment growing and shrinking?

During the 2021-22 school year, the vast majority of the country’s roughly 54.6 million public, private and charter school students in pre-K through 12th grade (83%) attended traditional public schools. Another 10% were enrolled in private schools, and 7% went to public charter schools.

Enrollment numbers have shifted over the last decade:

  • Traditional public school enrollment has declined. In fall 2011, about 47.2 million students attended public elementary, middle and secondary schools, accounting for 87% of all school enrollment. By fall 2021, the number of public school students dropped to about 45.4 million, resulting in a small drop in public schools’ share of total enrollment.
  • The popularity of charter schools has grown. Minnesota became the first state to pass legislation allowing charter schools in 1991. In the last 10 years alone, enrollment has risen from about 2.1 million students in fall 2011 to nearly 3.7 million in fall 2021, an increase from 4% to 7% of total enrollment.
  • Private school enrollment has held relatively steady. Private school students have consistently made up about 10% of school enrollment, with numbers that have fluctuated from a 10-year low of fewer than 5.3 million in 2011 to a peak of almost 5.8 million in 2015.

How does enrollment look at the state level?

Nationwide, the vast majority of students in pre-K through 12th grade attend traditional public schools – but shares vary somewhat from state to state. In Wyoming, for example, nearly all students (97%) attend public school, while 45% do in D.C.

The states with the highest percentages of public school enrollment include some of those with the lowest population density. In addition to Wyoming, West Virginia (95%), Montana (93%), Kansas and Alaska (91% each) round out the top five states by share of public school enrollment.

In most states, students are more likely to attend a private school than a charter school. Charter school students make up a larger share of enrollment than private school students in just 12 states and D.C. (Data is unavailable for seven states because they did not have any charter schools or legislation allowing them in fall 2021.)

Among the places where students are the least likely to attend traditional public schools:

  • D.C. has the highest share of charter school students, at 36%. Just 45% of K-12 students there attend traditional public schools. Another 19% attend private schools.
  • D.C. and Hawaii have the largest percentage of students in private schools, at 19% each. In Hawaii, another 76% of students are enrolled in public school, and 6% are enrolled in charter schools.

How do student demographics vary by school type?

Charter schools had the most racial and ethnic diversity during the 2021-22 school year. Hispanic students make up the largest share of enrollment there (36%), followed by White (29%), Black (24%) and Asian American students (4%).

In contrast, 47% of traditional public school students and 65% of private school students are White. Smaller shares are Hispanic, Black or Asian.

Differences also exist by household income level. Nearly all public and charter schools are part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-price meals to students based on family income.

In general, charter school students are more likely than public school kids to qualify for the program. For instance, 31% of charter students and 21% of traditional public school students are enrolled at a school where more than three-quarters of their peers qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Because a relatively small share of private schools participate in this program, 2021-22 data is not available for them. However, research shows that private school enrollment rates are highest among upper-income families.

What does the teaching staff look like at each type of school?

More than 4.2 million full- and part-time teachers worked at public, private and charter schools during the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year with available data. That year, about 3.5 million teachers (83%) taught at traditional public schools. Another 466,000 (11%) worked in private schools, and 251,000 (6%) taught at public charters.

The teaching force in each environment varies based on race and ethnicity, age, experience, and educational attainment.

  • Charter school teachers are the most racially and ethnically diverse: 69% of charter school teachers are White, compared with about eight-in-ten at both traditional public and private schools. Charters also employ the largest shares of Black and Hispanic teachers.
  • Private school teachers skew slightly older, while charter school teachers are the youngest: About 17% of private school teachers are ages 60 and older, compared with 8% in public schools and 7% in charter schools. And in charter schools, 21% of teachers are under 30, compared with 14% each in public and private schools.
  • Charters employ a larger share of teachers with fewer years of experience: For instance, 13% of both private and charter school teachers have fewer than three years of experience, compared with 7% of public school teachers. And 43% of charter school teachers have between three and nine years of experience, compared with 28% each in public and private schools.
  • Public school teachers are the most likely to have a master’s degree: 52% of public school teachers have a master’s degree, compared with about 41% each in charter and private schools.
U.S. public, private and charter schools in 5 charts (2024)

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