Which are growing faster: Public charters or district-run schools?

Enrollment in public charter schools has increased for white, Black, and Hispanic students.

Public charter school enrollment is climbing steadily just as enrollment in all other public schools slides in the opposite direction, a new analysis finds.

And more white, Black and Hispanic students are attending charters while the population of those subgroups has declined in district-run schools, according to the “Changing Course” report released this week by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

There are now approximately 7,700 public charter schools in 45 states, serving 3.6 million students and receiving $440 million in funding, the Alliance reports. The number of students attending those charters has jumped by about 240,000 (7%) over the last three school years while district enrollment fell by 1.5 million—a nearly 3.5% drop—since the beginning of the pandemic.

Charter school enrollment has grown in 39 out of the 41 states analyzed in the report. Only Illinois and Wyoming saw slight decreases. District public schools, meanwhile, lost enrollment in every one of those 41 states except for Idaho and Utah. The biggest increases for charters occurred in the 2020-21 school year.

About one in five families switched schools from March 2020 to May 2022 and nearly 90% found the change to be a positive one, leading the Alliance’s researchers to sum these trends up as a “parent revolution” that is most likely to continue. “In communities across America, families are clamoring for something other than the school their children are zoned to attend,” they write. “The data show that attempts at stifling parent demand will not force families to keep their children in schools they don’t want them to attend. It will just make them leave public education altogether.”

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Leaders of public schools—both district and charter—are advised to establish flexible education programs that meet families’ changing needs with individualized student support, access to technology, and educators who can adapt. The alternative would be to drive more families to homeschool if they can’t get their children into a charter or afford private school tuition, the report concludes.

“Most parents are not education experts, but they know a good school when they see one,” the researchers write in the study.”Families are not reenrolling their children in schools that never really met their needs in the first place.”

In regards to academic performance over the last three years, a study of Colorado charters contends that they outperformed district-run schools on the state’s evaluation system. That gap appears to be even larger among charter students from low-income families. “This suggests charters are more successful with low-income students than district schools,” says the Keystone Policy Center’s report.

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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