Charter School Enrollment Skyrockets Amid Restrictive Coronavirus Rules

Around 1.4 million students have left public schools since the pandemic began

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September 22, 2021

Charter school enrollment rose over 7 percent since 2019, signaling an exodus from public schools amid restrictive coronavirus rules.

Around 240,000 students enrolled in charter schools between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, according to a study released Wednesday from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. An estimated 1.4 million students have left public schools over the same period. Charter enrollment has not risen this much since the 2014-15 school year, when the number of charter schools in the country grew by 4.5 percent.

Charter school enrollment soared as lawmakers botched public school reopening. Teachers' unions successfully lobbied to keep schools closed in the face of scientific evidence that in-classroom instruction could safely resume. An August 2020 study found that throughout the pandemic, charters were more likely than their district counterparts to create set class schedules and remain in contact with parents during the pandemic.

Oklahoma saw a 77 percent increase in charter school enrollment from 2019 to 2021, the largest rise of any state. The state's public school enrollment decreased by 6.9 percent as nearly 36,000 students enrolled in charter schools. Alabama and Idaho were close behind, with 65.1 and 24.1 percent increases, respectively.

Minority families constituted a sizable part of that exodus in some states, Wednesday's study found. In California, 14,717 black students and 70,287 Latino students left public schools. Test scores and studies have found that lockdowns widened racial and socioeconomic gaps in learning achievement. Black and Latino students were less likely than white and Asian students to return to in-person instruction when schools reopened this past spring.

The report's authors note that the public school exodus increases charters' political clout.

"Families want more, not fewer, public school choices," Debbie Veney and Drew Jacobs said in their report. "They voted with their feet this past year, and they will surely vote at the polls." The report's authors said policymakers who oppose charters are "out of touch with their stakeholders and constituents."

Charter school enrollment fell only in Illinois, Iowa, and Wyoming. Combined, the three states lost fewer than 800 students.

Tommy Schultz, CEO of the American Federation for Children, told the Washington Free Beacon that the rise in charter enrollment is a direct response to teachers' unions' actions throughout the pandemic.

"Parents are rising up and demanding the freedom to choose the best educational environment for their children," Schultz said, noting that five million students remain on charter school wait lists.

Debates over coronavirus mitigation strategies created demand for school choice, Heritage Foundation education fellow Jonathan Butcher told the Free Beacon.

"The conflicts over mask wearing and vaccines continue to show a divide among families in different communities," Butcher said. "In terms of choice, there is a great deal of positive overlap between homeschooling, private school choice, learning pods, and other options today."

The number of homeschooled students doubled over the past year, according to an August 2020 study from Bellwether Education Partners. More than 16 percent of black families and 12.1 percent of Latino families have pulled their kids out of "traditional" education, according to the report, compared with 9.7 percent of white families.