“Unmet Demand” and the Attack on Charters

The Department of Education has proposed changes to the federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) that many school reform advocates find alarming. The rules will make it harder for certain charter schools to receive federal funding, threatening to chill the charter movement. Specifically, officials want to require CSP beneficiaries to provide evidence of “unmet demand” for charters in their area, such as “over-enrollment at existing public schools” in order to receive funding. 

13 Republican senators signed a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona criticizing this proposal, saying it would likely defund charter schools in big cities. They also note that the administration is not accepting charter school waitlists as evidence of demand, but rather focusing on the raw numbers of available schools. “Demand for charter schools is not just about the availability for any seat, but the demand for a high-quality seat,” they explain. 

Earlier this year, the New Center published a proposal for 10,000 new charter schools in America over the next ten years. In it, we address charter school demand as well as the particular advantages of charter schools in urban environments. These excerpts can be useful in the newest charter school conversation: 


About 3.5 million students attend charter schools (out of 48.1 million total public school students), with another million on waiting lists (although this number could be somewhat inflated because one student can be on multiple waiting lists, or enrolled in one charter but on a waiting list for another). The National Association for Public Charter Schools estimates that demand for charter schools is almost three times higher than the current supply. This means five million more students would attend charter schools if one were more available to them.

Charter school supply is not meeting demand. According to the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the average number of charter school deserts per state is 10.8. They define a charter school desert as “three or more contiguous census tracts that have poverty rates greater than 20 percent but that have no charter schools.” (Census tracts are regions defined for the purpose of taking a census, and they often coincide with city or town boundaries.)

This is a problem because it means students are missing out on the benefits charter schools have proven to offer. There have been several different studies in recent years attempting to measure the gains that students can make in charter schools versus traditional public schools, and most show charters consistently performing better, particularly in urban areas.

  • A Stanford University study found that charter students in 41 urban districts made learning gains equivalent to 40 additional days of instruction in math and 28 days in reading than their district peers
  • A Brookings study found that Boston charter students scored higher on standardized tests and were 43 percent more likely than their public school peers to attend a four year college
  • Professor Sarah Cordes found that New York City public schools boasted higher test scores when charters were nearby; the closer the charter, the higher the score
  • Another Stanford study found that increased competition from charters in Washington, D.C was associated with several additional weeks of learning gains in math and reading for local public school students.


The benefits of urban charter schools are concentrated among low-income and minority students. The proposed changes to CSP threaten to deny opportunity to children who would not have it otherwise. 

The full version of our 10,000 Charters policy paper can be found here