Gov’t watchdog: Federal charter school grant program led to higher enrollment

Young Private School Students Celebrating

Charter schools that received grants from the U.S. Department of Education generally experienced higher rates of student enrollment growth than similar schools who did not receive a grant, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“According to the GAO’s analysis, charter schools saw between 1.3 to 1.6 times higher enrollment growth within 12 years of participating in the Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program (CSP).”

“Policymakers should use this information to justify greater investments in the Charter Schools Program,” Christy Wolfe, senior vice president of policy, research and planning at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said in an email to Chalkboard Review. 

“The CSP provides up-front funding for resources and materials that are critical to the first 2-3 years of operations, and allow for better planning, staff recruitment and student outreach, which in turn lead to higher enrollment rates,” Wolfe said.

“This latest GAO report confirms the findings of the 2022 report: Public charter schools that receive CSP grants stay open longer,” Wolfe continued.

That GAO report, released in October last year, found that public charter schools participating in the program were 1.5 times less likely to close than their counterparts that did not. 

“The new report also provides additional evidence that the CSP supports the creation of high-quality charter schools,” Wolfe said.

The recent GAO analysis found that between 2006 and 2020, charter schools that were awarded CSP grants to open or expand grew by nearly 1,167,000 students.

The program has supported the nation’s charter schools since 1995, but the GAO’s analysis covers 2006-2020, when complete recent data were available. 

In that time, CSP granted nearly $2.5 billion to state entities, charter management organizations and non-state educational agencies and developers, the GAO found. According to Bellwether Education Partners, the program has spent $5.3 billion on charter schools since its inception. 

The money from the Education Department’s program comes with oversight requirements. 

“Recipients must submit detailed applications to receive funds and agree to numerous requirements that govern what they must do before opening a school and how the funds can be used,” Wolfe said. “The activities are monitored to ensure that funds are spent in accordance with the application and agreement.”

Between 2006 and 2007, the percentage of all students enrolled in charter schools overall grew from 2.6% to 7.5%, according to the GAO report. Schools participating in the CSP saw growth from 0.4% of all student enrollment to 2.8% of enrollment. 

Wolfe added that just fewer than half of charter schools open today received CSP grants. 

The report highlighted findings that charter schools were less likely than traditional public schools to enroll students with disabilities, but offered some possible explanations for the disparity based on research from the National Council on Disability:

“Charter schools may have practices that discourage parents of students with disabilities from applying to the school,” the report reads. “Parents of students with disabilities are less likely to apply to charter schools.”

Other reasons listed are that parents may already be connected with specialized programs at public schools or lack information about charter schools.

“Specialized pre-K programs typically feed into district schools, not charter schools,” Wolfe said. “And charter schools in many places lack equitable access to funding for students with disabilities, or are even prohibited from serving pre-K students.”

There are many reasons outside a charter school’s control that can impact enrollment, Wolfe said, adding that charter schools may be less likely to label students with learning disabilities and that funding access to services for students can present challenges.

Wolfe added: “All public charter schools are subject to federal law with respect to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and the National Alliance is committed to ensuring students with disabilities have equitable access to charter schools.”

Brendan Clarey
Brendan Clarey is K-12 editor at Chalkboard Review. Reach him at

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