Charter schools gained, public schools lost students during pandemic: report

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Charter schools in New York City had rapid enrollment amid public school closures in 2020. Daniel William McKnight

Charter schools scooped up hundreds of thousands of additional students across the U.S. during the coronavirus outbreak while enrollment plunged at traditional public schools amid building closures and inferior virtual learning, a new report reveals.

Charter school enrollment increased by 7.1 percent nationally during 2020-’21 amid the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the “Voting With Their Feet” analysis conducted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Enrollment at charter schools jumped from 3,350,785 students in 2019-2020 to 3,588,094 in 2021 — or nearly 240,000.

At the same time, traditional public school enrollment plunged by 3.3 percent — a drop of nearly 1.5 million kids — from 44,025,289 to 42,572,705, the report released Wednesday states.

In New York State, charter school enrollment jumped 7.4 percent while students in traditional public schools dropped by 3.6 percent.

Much of the increase in charter school enrollment occurred in New York City, home to the lion’s share of the publicly-funded, privately managed schools. Enrollment in city charters surged by nearly 10,000 students — from 128,951 to 138,613, according to the New York City Charter School Center.

In the Big Apple there are now 272 charter schools that account for 14 percent of all public school students.

At the same time, the city Department of Education reported losing 37,730 students over the same two-year period.

 									charter schools								,  									Coronavirus								,  									department of education								,  									public schools								,  									remote learning								,  									students

Parents take their children to PS/IS 217 on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan on September 13, 2021.

James Messerschmidt

While there was planned charter school growth in many states including New York, the report suggests that parents fed up with inferior virtual classes contributed to the public school districts exodus.

School district across the country expanded summer school options for students to address “learning loss” during the pandemic.

“The analysis further confirms that a large segment of the nation’s students changed where they attended school last year, prompted by school closures, job loss and dissatisfaction with remote learning,” the report said.

New York City charter schools continue to grow despite the pandemic and were nimble in adapting to virtual learning during the pandemic, said NYC Charter Center CEO James Merriman.

“Kids continue to choose charter schools. Charter schools were able to start up remote programs much more quickly — and they were real programs,” Merriman said.

 									charter schools								,  									Coronavirus								,  									department of education								,  									public schools								,  									remote learning								,  									students

NYC Charter Center CEO James Merriman argues charter schools developed better virtual learning programs than their public counterparts.

William Farrington

In other states, many parents enrolled kids in charter schools that offered in-person learning while other schools didn’t.

Yet in other states — particularly Oklahoma — there was an increase in “virtual” charter schools offering all classes online. Charter school enrollment there jumped by 78 percent during the pandemic.

Of the 42 states with charter schools, 39 reported increased enrollment while only three didn’t. By comparison, all state traditional public school systems reported drops in enrollment.

Among New York’s neighbors, the number of charter school kids shot up by 15% in Pennsylvania and 3.4 percent in New Jersey.

 									charter schools								,  									Coronavirus								,  									department of education								,  									public schools								,  									remote learning								,  									students

Students packed in a classroom wear masks at Santa Fe South High School in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on September 1, 2021.

REUTERS/Nick Oxford

Elsewhere, charter enrollment went up 65 percent in Alabama, 20.8 percent in Oregon, 11 percent in Ohio and 9 percent in Texas.

“During the 2020-21 school year, the pandemic forced schools of all types to close their doors and switch to remote learning. Many families were dissatisfied with the quality of what was available to their children. And that dissatisfaction led them to learn more about the other educational options available. For many families, charter schools’ nimbleness and flexibility made them the right public school choice,” the pro-charter group analysis said.

The report acknowledges that many parents chose other options besides charters, such as home schooling or sending their children to private schools.

“But the unmistakable message is that something wasn’t working for more than one million parents. They voted with their feet and chose options that are a better fit for their children,” said the Alliance president and CEO Nina Rees.

“The unusually high rate of charter school growth during the first full year of the pandemic is particularly noteworthy because there were likely not more schools opening than normal, and perhaps fewer due to the pandemic.”

Not since the 2014-15 school year did the charter school enrollment increase by more than 7 percent, and that was attributed to an increase in the opening of new charter schools.

The report claimed some practices in charters — such as prioritizing “real-time” learning and regular check-ins students and parents made the alternative schools more appealing.

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