A Changing Landscape: Examining How Public Charter School Enrollment Is Growing in DC

Enrollment in the District of Columbia’s public charter schools leapt from a quarter of all DC students a decade ago to nearly half of all DC students in the 2015-2016 school year. While the gap in enrollment growth rates between DC Public Schools and public charter schools has narrowed significantly in recent years, the charter sector appears to still be growing faster. As the city’s policymakers consider ways to improve coordination and planning between the traditional public school and charter school sectors, it is important to examine past enrollment trends to better predict what the educational landscape may look like in the future. In this brief, DCFPI examines changes in the public charter sector’s enrollment in recent years in order to identify growth trends and patterns in who is being served by public charter schools in DC.

  • The share of DC students enrolled in public charter schools has nearly doubled since the 2005-06 school year. Ten years ago, 18,000 students were enrolled in a public charter school, just one-third of the 55,000 students in DCPS. In 2015-16, the 39,000 students in public charter schools was much closer to the 48,000 students in a DC Public School, reflecting more than a doubling of charter enrollment and a drop in DCPS enrollment (see Figure 1). As a result, enrollment in DC public charter schools jumped from 25 percent of all DC students a decade ago to 45 percent in 2016.
  • The growth rates of traditional public schools and public charter schools have narrowed greatly in recent years. From 2005-06 to 2010-11, public charter enrollment grew 65 percent while DCPS enrollment fell 17 percent. In the most recent five years, by contrast, the charter sector grew 32 percent compared with 6 percent for DCPS.
  • Enrollment in Ward 5 and Ward 8 public charter schools has grown the fastest since school year 2011-12, while enrollment has declined in Ward 1 charter schools. Enrollment in both Ward 5 and Ward 8 public charter schools increased about 50 percent between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years, while enrollment in Ward 1 charter schools shrank 16 percent. Public charter school enrollment also grew in Ward 4 and Ward 6, while charter enrollment in Ward 7 grew by only 1 percent. Ward 5 and Ward 8 public charter schools now have the most enrolled students of any ward.
  • Public charter school enrollment in elementary and Pre-Kindergarten grades greatly outpaced growth in middle and high school grades. Between the 2011-12 and 2015-16 school years, enrollment in public charter elementary school grades grew at more than triple the rate of middle school grades, and seven times the rate of high school grades. Pre-K 3 and 4 enrollment also grew substantially. Pre-K enrollment in the public charter sector is now larger than its high school enrollment, and almost as high as middle school enrollment.
  • “At-risk” students are a majority of the student population in all Ward 8 public charter schools, and most Ward 7 public charter schools. More than half of the students in each of the 19 public charter schools in Ward 8 are low-income or otherwise at-risk. Nearly all Ward 7 public charter schools also enroll mostly at-risk students. By contrast, almost no charter schools located in Wards 1 and 4 had a majority at-risk student body.

While this report focuses on past enrollment trends, it is critical to consider how such analysis could be best used to predict changes to student enrollment across sectors in the coming years. Greater transparency from the public charter school sector, and better coordination and planning between DC Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools (DCPCS), are key to ensuring that enrollment growth is managed in a way that produces the best outcomes for DC’s students and families. Other demographic trends — including birth rate, socioeconomic status, and housing data — also will be important to consider in future planning for student populations.

To read the full report, click here.

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