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Monday, February 11, 2013

DCPS Enrollment: The Sky is NOT Falling

Today’s Washington Post story on the steady growth of DC charter school enrollment talks about charter school market share, and whether or when charters might become more than 50 percent of the DC public school students.

The piece by reporter Emma Brown also raises important questions about education policy in the city, like: Should there be a limit on charter school growth or a pause on this growth? Should there be more joint planning around what schools open where? I’d like to share my thoughts on these issues.  Today I will focus on the issue of charter growth.  Tomorrow I will address joint planning.

PCSB has heard from many the concern that charter school growth is weakening traditional schools.  Many have expressed the fear that DCPS could shrink to an attenuated system without enough scale to maintain a viable network of neighborhood schools. 

We think the opposite is the case, and that a sky-is-falling Chicken-Little outlook is actually a result of misreading the data. 

Here are the facts:  Since 2009, enrollment in DCPS has stabilized. DCPS is not shrinking.  It is slowly growing. 

Why is enrollment in DCPS increasing? 

Two reform-oriented chancellors, an education shift to mayoral control, and a huge investment in modernizing facilities have certainly played a role.  But all of this has occurred in an environment of increased competition from charter schools.  As was intended when they were created, the competition from charter schools is spurring needed improvements in traditional schools.  As a result DCPS is stronger, better led, and higher quality than it has been in decades.

But what about school closures?  Isn’t that prima facie evidence that DCPS continues to shrink?   No it is not.  The recent decision to close 15 DCPS schools is, in many respects, a delayed response to the enrollment declines of a decade ago.

Add strong charter growth to modest DCPS growth and we achieve something remarkable: overall public school enrollment has grown for four straight years.  More students are enrolled in public schools, DC and charter, than we have seen in nearly twenty years.  

And this growth does not need to stop.  In 1966, 146,644 students went to DC public schools.  Today total enrollment is 80,230.  If DCPS and charters keep growing high-quality schools, we can draw families back to the city and keep the many young people who will soon have children.

It’s time to stop focusing on market share and to start focusing on more important questions:  Don't we need more high-quality schools for our children?  Don't good public schools – district and charter -- contribute to the growth of our city?

As long as the answers to these questions are “yes”, we see no reason to stop approving new charters of operators who offer that promise to the city.

Posted by: Scott Pearson at
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