DC Charter School Enrollment Nears Parity With Public Schools

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pexels, Creative Commons)

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute has released a report that examines the evolving nature of Washington, DC's public charter school sector. Titled "A Changing Landscape: Examining How Public Charter School Enrollment is Growing in DC," the report hopes to identify patterns in who is being served by the charter schools.

The report begins by detailing some facts and statistics about the enrollment levels in DC's public charter schools. Over the last decade, the share of students enrolled in DC public charter schools has nearly doubled, rising from 18,000 in 2005 to 39,000 in 2015. The number charter school students is approaching the number of students enrolled in DC's Public School system, 48,000.

Additionally, the growth rate of public charter schools has considerably outpaced the growth rate of public schools. From 2005 to 2011, public charter enrollment grew by 65%, while enrollment in DC's public schools fell by 17%. The researchers note, however, that these rates have narrowed over the last five years.

Interestingly, elementary and pre-Kindergarten grades account for the rapid growth of the city's charter school sector. Enrollment in elementary school grades in charter schools grew at more than triple the rate of middle school grades and seven times the rate of high school grades. The share of pre-K enrollment in public charter schools is grater than the share of high school enrollment. The report finds that parents and students are turning to charter schools primarily for early and middle school education as opposed to high school.

Specifically, enrollment in Ward 5 and Ward 8 public charter high schools has grown the fastest, increasing in these wards by about 50% over the last decade. The report reveals that "at-risk" students comprise the majority of students in all Ward 8 public charter schools and most of those in Ward 7. More than half of the students in these wards are low-income.

By contrast, almost no charter schools in Ward 1 or Ward 4 have a majority of at-risk students; charter schools' growth rate in these wards have been much slower in comparison to that of the aforementioned wards. Indeed, charter school enrollment in Ward 1 fell by 16% over the last ten years.

The report identifies at-risk students as those fueling the breakneck pace of charter school growth in D.C., whereas students who are not considered "at-risk" are turning away from charter schools.

The report presents the data so that policymakers, educators, and researchers can employ it to predict changes in student enrollment patterns across the city in the coming years. Currently, it says, the coordination between traditional public schools and charter schools could be stronger, and that it is important to examine these growth trends today to anticipate what DC's education sector will look like tomorrow.

If enrollment growth is understood and properly managed, it can be harnessed to produce the best outcomes for DC's students and families, the report says. The researchers also urge that other sociological trends like birth rate, socioeconomic status, and housing data be used to coordinate future planning of student populations.

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