GAO: Grant-funded charter schools show greater enrollment growth

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Dive Brief:

  • Public charter schools that received federal grants to open or expand showed higher student enrollment growth compared to charters that did not receive this funding, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday.
  • Grant-funded charter schools had 1.3 to 1.6 times higher enrollment growth on average. within 12 years of receiving grants. Overall, enrollment rose from 213,576 to 1.4 million students in grant-funded charter schools between the 2006-07 and 2020-21 school years.
  • GAO also reiterated findings from earlier research that found charter schools — whether recipients of federal grants or not — enrolled smaller percentages of students with disabilities compared to traditional public schools. 

Dive Insight:

The GAO report on enrollment in Charter School Program-funded schools comes in response to a requirement of the 2021 U.S. Department of Education appropriations bill. The CPS program has been funded at $440 million annually since Fiscal Year 2020.

A GAO report from October 2022 found about $152 million in CSP grants — or about 8% of grants — went to charters that closed or never opened between 2006 and 2020.

New CPS rules, introduced early last year by the Biden administration to add requirements for expanding charter schools, met with both resistance and praise. The final rules, which were somewhat relaxed from the initial proposal, took effect in August and survived a repeal attempt by some Republican lawmakers in December.

While the overwhelming majority of K-12 public school students attend traditional public schools, charter school enrollment grew from 1.4 million in 2006-07 to 3.7 million in 2020-21. For traditional public and magnet schools, enrollment fell from 51.3 million to 45.7 million over the same period.

The GAO report did not explore reasons for the enrollment increases or decreases. It did, however, briefly reiterate previous research about why enrollment varies in charter and traditional schools for students with disabilities. 

Such reasons include practices that discourage parents from applying to charter schools, as well as parents’ familiarity with special education services provided at traditional public schools. All public schools, including charter schools, are responsible for complying with federal requirements for serving students with disabilities.

The practices GAO mentioned as possibly contributing to lower participation by students with disabilities in charter schools reflect research from the Center for Learner Equity, according to Lauren Morando Rhim, executive director of the center, a nonprofit that advocates for quality educational opportunities for students with disabilities. 

Morando Rhim said that, in addition to staying on top of participation rates, charter school operators and authorizers should also investigate how to improve programming quality and inclusion of students with disabilities. 

“I think that the greatest thing charters could do is to be more intentional about developing programs, instructional programs and supports for kids with disabilities and making sure that parents are aware of them,” Morando Rhim said.

She also recommended that when a charter school is created, educators keep accessibility of all students in mind, rather than waiting to develop programming later for certain students.

“I would love to see CSP and all conversations around CSP to be much more focused on more high-quality seats rather than just more seats,” she said.

This article originally appeared in

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