Families Flock to School Choice Options Amid Pandemic

Will Flanders:

Many have made the case that the pandemic increased the movement of families away from traditional public schools. Families are moving to nontraditional options, like learning pods, as well as to more established educational options, including public charter and private schools. Now, more and more data is available that helps to confirm this notion.

The latest example comes from a study by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS).  They examined public charter school enrollment state-by-state over the period that included the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Of the 42 states across the nation that have public charter schools, 39 saw a significant increase in enrollment over that time period (the only states to see a decline in public charter enrollment were Illinois, Iowa and Wyoming).  The rate of enrollment growth nationwide at 7% was the highest since the 2014-15 school year. This increase is different from that seen in 2014-15 because at that time, the increase was due to a quickly growing number of new schools, which was not the case during the pandemic.

Wisconsin was among the states that saw significant growth in student enrollment.  According to the research, public charter school enrollment grew by 13.8% growth even as public school district enrollment declined by about 3.8% in the state.  Wisconsin ranked 11th in the rate of public charter enrollment growth among the 42 states.

This was not simply a story of public charter schools remaining open while public schools closed their doors, but rather of public charter schools having a great ability to offer options tailored to student need. For example, the study highlight public charter schools that emphasized the mental health of students and the ability offer one-to-one technological support in virtual learning as key drivers of growth.

This is consistent with research conducted by WILLwhich showed that schools that offered in-person instruction, as well as those that had pre-pandemic experience with virtual learning, grew in Wisconsin during the pandemic. Traditional school districts that went fully virtual saw a 3% decline in enrollment, while those that remained in-person, as some public charter schools did, saw far smaller enrollment declines. Virtual public schools in Wisconsin are classified as public charter schools by the Department of Public Instruction. These schools saw enrollment growth of about 4%, which likely helped to spur the overall growth found by NAPCS.