Charter school enrollment is continuing to grow following the pandemic, building on the momentum gained from school building closures and distance learning during COVID-19, according to a report released by Moody’s Investors Service this month. Charter school growth is highest in pro-school choice states like Florida, Arizona, Idaho, Texas and Utah, the report said.
Between fall 2017 and fall 2022, for example, the share of students attending charter schools grew from 5.1% to 7.4% in Texas and from 10.4% to 13.3% in Florida. Still, charters in less choice-friendly states like California and New York are also experiencing gains in market share.
In those states, increased charter market share is likely because of enrollment losses at traditional public schools. Additional competition from charter and virtual schools are exacerbating those enrollment losses. For example, in Pennsylvania — the only state that experienced overall enrollment growth in the Mid-Atlantic region during this time period — most K-12 traditional public school districts saw a net enrollment loss because of a growing preference for charter and cyber schools.
Enrollment declines exacerbated by the pandemic continue to worry education leaders.
Public schools saw a 3% decline in enrollment during the 2020-21 school year, according to numbers released in 2021 by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The declines were mostly concentrated in pre-K, which saw a 22% decrease, and kindergarten, which experienced a 9% dip. Those declines were likely due to redshirting, or postponing kindergarten enrollment of age-eligible children, according to attendance and enrollment experts. Data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this year showed signs of enrollment rebounding.
However, anecdotal reports of parents sending their students to private, online or charter schools were more worrisome for traditional public schools, as those were more likely to have long-term implications than temporary decisions like redshirting.
According to a series of surveys from May 2021 conducted by Civis Analytics, a data science software provider and consultancy that routinely tracked COVID impacts, 29% of 2,324 parent respondents reported they disenrolled their children from their intended public school due to school reopening decisions.
Of that 29%, 42.6% said they chose an online program, 14% chose charters and 19% chose private schools. Some 22% enrolled in another public school.
A separate report released in 2021 by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, also showed that the number of students attending charter schools increased during the pandemic, while public schools saw overall declines in enrollment. At least 39 states saw various levels of charter enrollment increases, ranging from less than 1% in Louisiana to nearly 78% in Oklahoma.
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment, amounting to nearly 240,000 students, during the 2020-21 school year, the greatest increase since five years prior.
Even prior to the pandemic-related increases in charter school interest, enrollment in traditional public schools was trending downward for a multitude of reasons, like lower birth rates and changing immigration patterns.
That overall trend is now leading to school closures and consolidations.