School Choice & Charters

Charter School Enrollment Holds Steady After Big Early Pandemic Growth

By Lauraine Langreo — November 30, 2022 2 min read
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Charter school enrollment, which spiked in the first year of the pandemic, held steady in the 2021-22 school year, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The NAPCS report, published Nov. 16, is based on data from 41 states where charter schools exist and where enrollment data was available for three consecutive school years, from 2019-20 to 2021-22.

Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, charter school enrollment increased by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students nationwide, the report found. Meanwhile, enrollment in public school districts decreased by 3.5 percent, or nearly 1.5 million students—the steepest drop since World War I.

In the 2021-22 school year, enrollment in charter schools and district schools saw smaller decreases: Charter schools lost 1,436 students (0.04 percent) and district public schools lost 33,308 students (0.08 percent), the report found.

The steadying numbers in the second year of the pandemic indicate that the initial increase wasn’t just a coincidence, according to the report’s authors. The numbers show that most students who left their district schools in the first year of the pandemic did not return, even after schools reopened and in-person instruction resumed.

Some of the gains in charter school enrollment have been attributed to virtual charter schools, even though those types of schools have drawn some harsh criticism and questions about their quality.

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The report attributed the enrollment shift away from traditional public schools to a “parent revolution” and that parents are looking for options for their children that better meet their families’ needs. Some parents chose charter schools, some chose private schools, and others decided to homeschool their children.

Other research, such as a study from Boston University and the University of Michigan, found that the ongoing disruptions and changing restrictions “may have substantially altered parents’ perceptions of the quality of schooling their children might experience, as well as their perceptions of the physical risk of in-person schooling.”

These enrollment trends appear to be a “new normal,” instead of a temporary reaction to turbulent times, the NAPCS report authors wrote.

Researcher suggests charter growth fueled by ‘culture wars’

Gary Miron, a professor of educational leadership, research, and technology at Western Michigan University and a longstanding charter school critic, agreed that charter schools will continue to grow, but not because their educational outcomes are any better than those at traditional public schools. He argues they are growing because “politicians and advocacy groups use them increasingly in connection to culture wars” over issues such as critical race theory, the academic concept that says race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies.

He said the shift away from regular public schools during the pandemic might be due to the lack of certainty around how students were learning, not about the educational quality of traditional schools.

“It wasn’t that district schools weren’t performing well, but that there was a lot of uncertainty” with districts going back and forth between remote learning and in-person learning, he said.

“In an ideal world, districts would have had virtual schools ready to roll out,” Miron said. But “nobody knew what was coming.”

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