Every child should have the option to enroll in a school that best fits his or her needs, but “school choice” does not only involve private schools.

Public school choice, including charter schools and open enrollment, gives families options within the public school system.

Charter schools offer a free, public education with greater autonomy given to administrators and educators over the operations and management of the school, allowing for more innovation while remaining accountable to families and the state.1

Open enrollment allows families to choose whichever public school best fits their child’s needs, regardless of their address.2

A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found charter students outperform their peers at traditional public schools.3 Other research shows benefits to open enrollment policies, such as encouraging innovation and new programming in school districts, improving student achievement and increasing college enrollment.4

Charter schools are thriving across many states with enrollment increasing nationwide.5 But in Illinois, lawmakers have placed burdensome limits on charter schools. They have limited students’ options to enroll in a public school other than the one assigned to their address.

Choice in public education expands in many states

More parents are choosing charter schools for their children. Year-over-year growth in charter schools from the 2021-2022 school year to the 2022-2023 school year showed a 2% increase in enrollment nationwide while enrollment in district public schools remained flat.6

According to research by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “Looking at raw numbers, charter schools enrolled nearly 10 times the number of new students as district schools in the last school year. This represents meaningful growth for charter schools, especially considering that charter schools only serve 7.5% of the nation’s public school students.”7

Additionally, many states have pushed legislation to support and grow charter schools in recent years. Montana became the 46th state to enact a charter school law in 2023. Now, only four states do not have charter school laws: Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont.8

Some states are expanding families’ access to public schools by improving their open enrollment laws. Six states made cross- or within-district open enrollment available to all students during the 2023 legislative sessions.9

Now, 16 states have statewide cross-district open enrollment and 13 states have statewide within-district open enrollment.10

Illinois hinders charter school growth and innovation

While many states are expanding access to charter schools and experiencing growth in charter school enrollment, Illinois has legislation on the books that stymies charter expansion. Illinois also passed legislation in 2023 that hurts charter school operators.11

Illinois’ charter school law was passed in 1996 to allow the authorization of charter schools to “create new, innovative, and more flexible ways of educating children within the public school system.”12 But rather than allowing charter schools to flourish with flexibility, Illinois has forced cumbersome regulations on charter schools, burdening charter school operations and growth.

Cap on the number of charter schools

Illinois’ charter school law imposes a cap on the total number of charter schools allowed to operate at any one time in the state.

The law currently caps the number of charter schools at 120, with no more than 70 allowed to operate in cities with a population over 500,000, meaning Chicago.13 However, many charter schools operate multiple campuses under the same charter agreement.

In the most recent 2022-2023 school year data available from the Illinois State Board of Education, there were over 37,000 students enrolled in 131 charter school campuses in Illinois, 116 of which were located in Chicago.14

Teachers unions such as the Chicago Teachers Union have fought to keep charter schools from growing – both in collective bargaining agreements and in lobbying.

In negotiating the past two teacher contracts with Chicago Public Schools, CTU required a moratorium on the growth of charter schools.15 The current contract provides:

“There will be a net zero increase in the number of Board authorized charter schools over the term of this agreement and the total number of students enrolled by the 2023-24 school year will not exceed 101% of the total student enrollment capacity as of school year 2019-20.”16

In other words, CTU works to prevent the growth of charter schools and the number of students who can choose them. They work against them in Springfield, even fighting an effort to help high-school dropouts.

CTU targeted a bill that would have allowed four-year universities in Chicago to serve as the authorizer for a multi-site charter school devoted exclusively to re-enrolled high school dropouts. It has worked to stymie the growth of charter schools by opposing bills to remove the cap on the total number of charter schools that can operate statewide and bills that would have raised the minimum funding for charter schools.

CTU lobbied in favor of a bill extending a moratorium on the creation of charter schools that have virtual-schooling components. The bill only affected charters in school districts outside of Chicago. It worked in favor of a bill prohibiting the opening of a charter school in any ZIP code in which a public school was closed in the previous 10 years. It wanted to prohibit opening charter schools in ZIP codes contiguous to a ZIP code where a public school was closed.17

This lobbying against the growth and flourishing of charter schools by CTU impacts the whole state, limiting parents’ options from East St. Louis to Rockford.

Union neutrality agreement signed into law

Illinois further hampered the autonomy of charter schools when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a union neutrality clause into Illinois’ charter school law on Aug. 4, 2023.18 The union neutrality agreement means charter school operators will be required to, in effect, support a union’s attempt to organize its staff, making it easier for unions in Illinois to unionize charter schools.19

Charter schools were designed to combat union demands and improve public education while maintaining autonomy and, most importantly, innovation. “The hallmark of the charter movement is innovation,” said Andrew Broy, president of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “And it’s hard to innovate when you’re bound by a very restrictive contract.”20

The unionization of charter schools not only restricts innovation but also forces many families who had fled the militant tactics of teachers unions in public schools to once again submit to those unions’ whims.

Many students, parents and teachers in Chicago charters were historically spared the militant tactics and extreme demands of CTU. But CTU merged with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff in 2018, forcing CTU’s agenda onto the charter schools represented by the charter union.21

Later that year, CTU made history by organizing the first charter school strike in the nation’s history in Chicago’s Acero Schools charter network. The historic strike canceled class for more than 7,000 students in 15 charter schools, where more than 90% of students were Hispanic.22

Illinois offers very limited open enrollment options

Open enrollment refers to two distinct options: interdistrict enrollment and intradistrict enrollment.

Interdistrict enrollment, or cross-district enrollment, describes when a student enrolls in a public school in a district that is not assigned to their address.

Intradistrict enrollment, or “within-district” enrollment, is when a student enrolls a different public school within the same school district that matches their address.

Illinois does not require school districts to accept inter- or intradistrict transfer students, except for victims of violent crimes who can transfer between public schools within their resident district.23

In Illinois, both interdistrict and intradistrict enrollment is limited, with significant control over open enrollment policies and transfer admittances delegated to individual school districts.

In a 2023 study, the Reason Foundation determined best practices for inter- and intradistrict open enrollment and ranked each state on its open enrollment policies. Illinois failed to meet any of the five key components.24 In fact, Illinois is one of 24 states to impose strict penalties on parents who deceitfully enroll their child in a different school district.25

Illinois limits intradistrict enrollment

There are very limited circumstances under which Illinois students may transfer between school districts without changing residences.26

Students may enter into written agreements with a nonresident school district to transfer schools, including on a tuition-free basis, under specific circumstances, such as for the benefit of a student’s health or safety. But school districts are not required to enter into such agreements to allow enrollment of a nonresident student.27

School districts may choose to charge tuition to nonresident students who engage in cross-district transfers. Individual school boards have discretion over the tuition charged to nonresident students, but the tuition cannot exceed 110% of the per-student cost to maintain the school district in the previous school year.28

The state does not allow districts to charge tuition when students move out of a district mid-year but want to continue attending the same school for the rest of the school year.

School districts have autonomy over interdistrict transfers

Illinois students are allowed to transfer between schools within their resident district, but individual school boards have autonomy over the process and admittance of transfer students. The Illinois School Code mandates each school board establish and implement a within-district transfer policy.29

This gives school districts significant discretion over transfer requests. School districts can even reject transfers based on academics. A student may be barred from transferring to a school when “the board has established academic criteria for enrollment if the student does not meet the criteria.”30

Districts may also reject within-district transfer students if the student would push a school beyond its attendance capacity or “prevent the school district from meeting its obligations.”31

Illinois mandates school boards establish additional within-district transfer policies for students to transfer from a “persistently dangerous school.”

Students are permitted to transfer to a different public school within their home district if the student is the victim of a violent crime that happened “on school grounds during regular school hours or during a school-sponsored event.” School districts cannot reject these within-district transfers.33

Reason Foundation: Illinois fails to meet any open enrollment best practices

The Reason Foundation endorses five key components for open enrollment laws. Illinois is one of 19 states to fail to meet any of the best practices.34

No states have met all five practices, and only six states have adopted at least four of them.

According to Reason, “Only 16 states have statewide cross-district open enrollment; only 13 states have statewide within-district open enrollment; only three states have transparent [state education agency] reporting; only eight states have transparent school district reporting; and 24 states make public schools free to all students.”35

Parents can face fines and jail for falsifying residency records

Illinois is one of 24 states that criminalizes parents for falsifying their residency to gain admittance for their children in school districts other than the one assigned to their address.36

Parents who knowingly enroll, attempt to enroll or present false residency information to gain tuition-free admittance in a school district which is not zoned to their address are guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.37 If convicted, parents would face a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a fine.38

Illinois should expand public school options for families

Parents ought to have the opportunity to enroll their children in the schools that best fit their needs, regardless of ZIP code. Illinois should expand access to public schooling options for families and turn Illinois into a state with greater educational freedom.

Illinois lawmakers should eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools and implement more robust transfer policies by mandating statewide cross-district and within-district open enrollment.


1 “What is a Charter School?,” National Charter School Resource Center, accessed May 21, 2024, https://charterschoolcenter.ed.gov/what-charter-school.

2 Education Commission of the States, Open Enrollment Quick Guide, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.ecs.org/wp-content/uploads/Open-Enrollment-Quick-Guide.pdf.

3 Margaret E. Raymond, James L. Woodworth, Won Fy Lee, Sally Bachofer, As a Matter of Fact: The National Charter School Study III 2023 (Stanford: Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2023), 5.

4 Jude Schwalbach, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023 (Los Angeles: Reason Foundation, 2023), 3-4.

5 Drew Jacobs, Debbie Veney, Believing in Public Education: A Demographic and State-level Analysis of Public Charter School and District Public School Enrollment Trends (Washington, D.C.: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2023), 4-6.

6 Ibid, p. 3.

7 Ibid, p. 4.

8 Todd Ziebarth, 2023 State Legislative Session Highlights for Public Charter Schools (Washington, D.C.: The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 2023), 3, 14.

9 Schwalbach, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023, 1-2.

10 Ibid, p. 9.

11 Ibid, p. 15.

12 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 27A-2 (c)

13 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 27A-4 (b)

14 Illinois State Board of Education, “2023 Report Card Public Data Set,” accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.isbe.net/Pages/Illinois-State-Report-Card-Data.aspx

15 Hannah Schmid, “Chicago Teachers Union fights to weaken Chicago charter schools,” Illinois Policy Institute, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/chicago-teachers-union-fights-to-weaken-chicago-charter-schools/.

16 “Side Letter on Charters,” Agreement between The Board of Education of the City of Chicago and Chicago Teachers Union Local 1, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, accessed May 20, 2024, https://contract.ctulocal1.org/cps/charters.

17 Mailee Smith, “CTU told lawmakers what to do over 1,360 times in just 6 legislative sessions,” accessed May 20,2024, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/ctu-told-lawmakers-what-to-do-over-1360-times-in-just-6-legislative-sessions/.

18 Hannah Schmid, “Pritzker signs charter neutrality bill, Chicago Teachers Union fights to weaken charter schools,” accessed May 20,2024, https://www.illinoispolicy.org/pritzker-signs-charter-neutrality-bill-chicago-teachers-union-fights-to-weaken-charter-schools/.

19 “What is a ‘Neutrality Agreement’ and how does it affect workers?,” National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.nrtw.org/what-is-a-neutrality-agreement-and-how-does-it-affect-workers/.

20 Adrianna Cardona-Maguigad, “One Year After A Wave of Chicago Charter Strikes, Schools Are Forced To Cut Back,” accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.wbez.org/stories/one-year-after-a-wave-of-chicago-charter-strikes-schools-are-forced-to-cut-back/3881271a-46c9-4f5b-9b10-09b7956d2c31.

21 Schmid, “Pritzker Signs Charter Neutrality Bill”

22 Laura Fay, “Nation’s First Charter School Teacher Strike Shutters Class for 7,000 Students in Chicago,” accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.the74million.org/nations-first-charter-school-teacher-strike-shutters-class-for-7000-students/.

23 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (c)

24 Schwalbach, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023, 7-10.

25 Tim DeRoche, Hailly T.N. Korman, Harold Hinds, When Good Parents Go to Jail: The Criminalization of Address Sharing in Public Education, August 2023 (Available to All, 2023), 10, 19, 42.

26 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 27A-4 (b)

27 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-22.5 (a)

28 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-20.12a (a)

29 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (a)

30 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (a)

31 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (a)

32 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (b)

33 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-21.3a (c)

34 Schwalbach, Public Schools Without Boundaries 2023, 7-10.

35 Ibid, p. 9.

36 DeRoche, When Good Parents Go to Jail, 17.

37 105 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 10-20.12b (e) and (f)

38 730 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/Sec. 5-4.5-65