Those were the days

Editor’s note: You can read a reimaginED interview with Debbie Veney, senior vice president of communications for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, here.

Absent some delightful surge in fertility and/or immigration, it seems very likely that peak enrollment for America’s school districts lies in the past.

Years from now, district advocates may regard the years before the pandemic with nostalgia. Hopefully, people may think it strange, even primitive, that we once assigned students to schools by ZIP code. A 14-year-old and counting baby bust would not be easy to overcome in the best of times, and these surely are not the best of times for American school districts.

Voting with Their Feet,” a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, reinforces the impression the peak district enrollment has passed.

The Alliance tracked charter and district enrollment from 2019-20 to 2020-21. Nationwide charter schools gained 237,311 students while districts lost 1,452,584. All state charter sectors other than those of Illinois and Iowa gained students; all district systems lost students without exception.

District enrollment losses consistently outnumber charter gains, meaning that districts doubtlessly lost enrollment to kindergarten redshirting, private schools, home-schooling, dropouts and baby bust. Note, however, that all these things could have dragged down charter enrollment as well but didn’t manage it.

The real fun comes in examining the trends on a percentage basis:

With both the largest increase in charter school enrollment (77.7%!) and the largest decline in district enrollment (6.9%), Oklahoma parents win the prize for most restless parents.

Florida, meanwhile, saw a relatively modest increase in charter enrollment (3.9%) and modest decrease in district enrollment (3.2%). We are left to wonder what these numbers might look like if the Florida Education Association had prevailed in its effort to keep district schools from serving students in person.

Stay tuned and we’ll see what happens next.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.