Charter schools get a pandemic-year boost
Enrollment grew by 7 percent during the 2020-2021 school year
When their son was a baby, Alex Soto and his wife, Pilar Zarate, chose their house based on the school district it was in. From kindergarten to fourth grade, their son, also named Alex, attended schools in the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. But as he grew older, the couple worried his school was offering fewer and fewer challenging assignments.
When schools went virtual in March 2020, Soto and his wife began looking into other options. They ultimately enrolled Alex in a charter school for the fall 2020 semester. There, the couple felt that the online instruction and the communication with parents was better than they had experienced at their previous school. “If you send them an email, they will respond no later than the following day with an answer that makes sense,” Soto said.
While traditional public schools lost students during the pandemic, charter schools saw growth. A report released last month by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools showed that enrollment in U.S. charter schools rose by 7 percent in the 2020-2021 school year. Charter schools were the only segment of public education that experienced an increase in enrollment during the pandemic, gaining at least 237,000 students while other public schools lost 1.4 million enrollees.
“Our hypothesis is that during the year of the pandemic, parents got a really close look at what their students were doing because, in many cases, people were all home,” said Debbie Veney, a co-author of the report and the senior vice president of communications and marketing at the National Alliance. “There were some cases where students were getting so little instructional time, something like maybe 30 minutes of instructional time a week, and parents were motivated to find out something better.”
Charter schools are public schools that are government-funded but operate outside of the school district. Each school must be approved by an “authorizer,” which can be a school district, a university, or an organization.
The first charter school opened in 1992 in St. Paul, Minn. By the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 7,000 charters were operating across the country. Studies have shown mostly similar or improved educational outcomes for students at charter schools when compared with students at other public schools.
Laws governing charter schools vary by state, with a handful of states still refusing to allow them. Others place a cap on the number of charters allowed, although demand often outpaces supply: When student enrollment applications outnumber charter school seats, the school is required to admit students via lottery.
Veney said that during the pandemic, interest in charter schools often grew as parents compared notes with other parents about their child’s educational options. Many had never looked into charter schools before. She noted that families chose charters for different reasons: Some chose a school that offered in-person classes while other public schools were closed, and others did the opposite, opting for charter schools with virtual classes when district schools returned to in-person instruction.
Some states saw a boom in virtual charter enrollment, but virtual options don’t account for all of last year’s enrollment growth. In states like Oklahoma, where enrollment grew by 77.7 percent, virtual charter enrollment accounted for a significant portion. But Veney pointed out that other states, such as Texas and Alabama, also saw significant growth, despite having little or no all-virtual charter options.
Despite their growth, charter schools have plenty of critics. Opponents blame them for taking money from other public schools. But according to the Manhattan Institute, funding at traditional public schools has increased overall and per student. Ray Domanico, senior fellow and director of education policy at the institute, has studied education and school choice for over 40 years. He said that areas with powerful teachers’ unions often face greater opposition to charter schools. As of 2019, only about 11 percent of charters hired unionized teachers.
Another common complaint is that charter schools “cherry-pick” their students. Veney said that charter schools can’t legally do that: “If you’re going to a magnet school, you might have to do an audition, or sit for an exam, or something like that. But never at a charter school. We … take every kid that that comes to us.” According to Veney, over 60 percent of charter school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Domanico said it remains to be seen how the Biden administration will approach charter schools. But Veney was pleased when Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona continued his predecessors’ tradition of speaking at the National Charter Schools Conference this summer and when President Joe Biden offered a budget proposal that did not cut back charter school grant funding.
Veney is optimistic the interest in charter school education will continue. And that’s good news for parents like Soto.
“I grew up in the school district,” Soto said. “It’s not for everybody, I guess, in this day and age. So I’m glad there’s options.”
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