Charter school enrollment expands as traditional district enrollment sags

BASIS Flagstaff Charter School, which opened in 2011, consistently makes the list of Arizona’s top charter schools.

Preliminary data from a new state-level analysis from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools indicates that public charter schools posted more enrollment growth in 2020-21 than they’ve seen in the past six years, even as traditional public school enrollment declined during the first full academic year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across 42 states included in the analysis, charter schools gained nearly 240,000 students – a 7% increase – from 2019-20 to 2020-21. Other public schools, including district-run schools, lost more than 1.4 million students, a 3% loss, during the same period.

Increases for charter schools ranged from 49 additional students in Virginia to 35,751 additional students in Oklahoma according to the report. In terms of percentages, the increase in charter enrollment ranged from 0.19% in Louisiana to nearly 78% in Oklahoma. Only three states – Illinois, Iowa and Wyoming – saw declines in charter school population.

Virtual charter school enrollments figured into the increases, the study found, particularly in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Utah.

In Florida, charter school enrollment increased 3.86% over the last year, a little more than 3 percentage points less than the national average, while the state’s district public schools experienced a 3.16% enrollment decrease, close to the national average.

The National Alliance consulted state educational agency websites to gather enrollment data for the study. Researchers also spoke with parents, teachers, students and school leaders to gather anecdotal data.

The report notes that a similar increase in charter school enrollment hasn’t been seen since the 2014-15 school year, when the number of charter schools grew by 4.6%, creating a 7.5% enrollment boost.

While the report doesn’t offer details on whether overall growth was due to students leaving district schools or new schools opening, the authors conclude that many families, dissatisfied with the quality of what was available to their children during the pandemic, turned to other educational options, including the “nimbleness and flexibility” of charter schools that made them “the right public school choice.”