Serving about six percent of the U.S. school-age population and with one million other students waitlisted, the charter school sector is the most rapidly growing segment in K-12 education. But little is known about what charter parents think of their children’s schools. Two new studies released by Education Next provide the first analyses of the views of nationally representative samples of parents that compare perceptions of school operations in the charter, private and district-operated sectors. Both studies find that charter parents, on average, are more satisfied with their children’s schools than are district-school parents. However, both charter and district-school parents are less satisfied than private-school parents.

The first study reports the responses to a survey administered by Education Next in May and June of 2016 to a nationally representative sample of 1,519 parents with school-aged children. The second study reports the results of a survey conducted in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Education, which was administered to more than 17,000 households with children in charter, private, assigned district, and chosen district sectors (about nine percent of all district schools). The large sample size permits comparisons of parent satisfaction within race, income, and other categories.

Among the key findings from the Education Next survey:

  • Charter parents are considerably more satisfied with their schools than are district-school parents. Across five key characteristics—teacher quality, discipline, expectations for achievement, safety, and instruction in character and values—charter parents are on average 13 percentage points more satisfied than district parents. Private-school parents are on average 12 percentage points more satisfied than charter-school parents across the same five characteristics.
  • District-school parents are more likely than are private-school parents to say that problems at their school are either serious or very serious; charter parents fall in the middle. Of four indicators of social disruption—students using drugs, students destroying property, fighting, and missing classes—district parents are on average 8 percentage points more likely than charter parents to perceive a problem as serious or very serious. But charter parents are on average 14 percentage points more likely than district parents to report lack of extracurricular activities as a problem.
  • Charter parents report more extensive communications with school staff than do either district- or private-school parents. As compared to parents of children in district schools, charter parents are 15 and 7 percentage points more likely to say they have communicated with the school about volunteering and about their children’s accomplishments, respectively. As compared to parents of children in private schools, charter parents are 14 percentage points more likely to say they have communicated with school officials about their children’s schoolwork or homework.

Among the key findings from the U.S. Department of Education survey:

  • Satisfaction levels are higher among private-school parents than among those with children at charter schools and chosen district schools, who in turn register higher levels of satisfaction than parents of students attending assigned district schools.
  • In all four sectors, high-income parents are more satisfied with their schools than are low-income parents,but the difference between private schools and assigned district schools is greater for low-income parents than those of high income.
  • In all but the private sector, parents of elementary-aged children are more satisfied with their schools than are parents of children in their high-school years, but charter schools gather higher rates of satisfaction than assigned district schools at all age levels. 
  • Black, white and Hispanic parents express higher satisfaction with private schools than with schools in both the charter and district sectors, but Asian parents do not. Differences in satisfaction between charters and the chosen district sector is 5 percentage points for blacks and Hispanics and 1 percentage point for whites, but none of these differences are statistically significant.

“Although parental perceptions cannot necessarily be interpreted as identifying in-school realities, they do suggest that parental demand for charters and private schools is likely to grow,” says Martin R. West, editor in chief of Education Next. Commenting on the small differences in satisfaction levels among parents with children in the charter and chosen district sectors, Paul E. Peterson, professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard Kennedy School, notes that “chosen district schools serve a smaller percentage of students of color than charters do, and they are more likely to use examinations as entry requirements, while most charter schools must accept all applicants or use a lottery to select among them.”


"What Do Parents Think of Their Children’s Schools: EdNext poll compares charter, district, and private schools nationwide," by Samuel Barrows, Paul E. Peterson, and Martin R. West and "How Satisfied are Parents from Various Backgrounds with Their Children’s Schools? First results from a U.S. Department of Education survey," by Albert Cheng and Paul E. Peterson will be released online at on Tuesday, December 13 and will appear in the Spring 2017 issue of Education Next, available in print on February 28, 2017.

To receive an copy of the studies or to arrange an interview with the authors, please contact Jackie Kerstetter at

About the Authors: Paul E. Peterson is professor of government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. Martin R. West, editor-in chief of Education Next, is associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School, where Samuel Barrows and Albert Cheng are postdoctoral fellows.

Related Links


Jackie Kerstetter
Contact Phone Number