During the pandemic, we’ve seen an exodus of teachers from public schools, but it turns out educators aren’t the only ones ditching traditional K-12 education institutions. 

In the first year of the pandemic, there was a 3% drop in public school enrollment, bringing the number of students in attendance back to levels last seen in 2009. Not only did it “erase a decade of steady growth,” but it was the largest single-year decline in public school enrollment since 1943, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2022 Condition of Education report.

But the decline wasn’t seen everywhere. Charter schools actually saw considerable growth during the pandemic school years. 

According to a 2021 analysis by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools nationwide saw a 7% increase in enrollment from the 2019/2020 school year to 2020/2021. However, the share of Black students enrolled in charters declined from 30% to 25%.

Are Black families losing interest in charter schools? The short answer is no, but it’s not that simple.

Where Did the Overall Charter Enrollment Increase Come From?

Most of the increased charter enrollment comes from parents enrolling their children in virtual schools during the pandemic, and a large number of virtual schools are charters. Dr. Jon Valant, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says COVID created a “sudden jolt to the system.” 

“A lot of families ended up enrolling, at least for a year or two, in virtual schools, and a disproportionate number of virtual schools are charters,” Valant says, which inflates the enrollment numbers. “A lot of families are not really signing up because they want to send kids to a charter school, necessarily, they want to send kids to a virtual school.”

Thirteen states had virtual charter enrollments increase by more than 10%, a Network for Public Education analysis found. Further, only one of those states saw growth in traditional charters exceed growth in virtual charters. Overall, the analysis found that traditional charters accounted for 4.5% of the growth, while virtual charters were 95.5%.

So Why Does it Look Like Fewer Black Students Are Attending Charters? 

There’s been a huge increase in Hispanic students enrolling in charters, which is shifting Black and white students to be a smaller portion of the whole.

“For a long time, there was an under-representation of Hispanic students in charters, and now we’re starting to see Hispanic students enrolling at rates that are more reflective of their portion of the population as a whole,” says Dr. James Lynn Woodworth, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.”That’s going to, by definition, cause the percentage of students in charters who are Black to decrease.”

Charter enrollment has been increasing for decades, and it was disproportionately among Black students. This can be attributed to the hyperlocal nature of charter schools, which was appealing to Black and Brown families, says Debbie Veney, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. Black and Brown families are most affected by the pandemic, both in terms of mortality rates and economic impacts.

In the first two years of the pandemic, charters also offered flexibility and real-time feedback parents could give, like weekly polling about whether they wanted to send their students to the building or keep them at home. This, in particular, spoke to Black and Brown families, who may live in multi-generational homes.

“While some populations were eager to run back into schools, there were a lot of Black and Brown families that were scared,” Veney says. “They did not want their children back in brick and mortar schools just yet.”

These numbers do tell stories, but it’s still too early to note any definitive enrollment trends. In fact, Valant says, we shouldn’t infer anything about charter school demand from enrollment changes in virtual charters over the last couple years.

The Appetite for Charters Probably Isn’t Changing

Even if parents start choosing traditional in-person schools as the country moves forward through the pandemic, charter schools aren’t going anywhere. 

“We have seen steady increases in charter school enrollment — that has never wavered,” Woodworth says. “I don’t think we’re going to see a change in that. I think it’s going to continue the trend.

Valant agreed, saying it doesn’t matter to the majority of parents whether their children are attending a charter or traditional public school, just that it’s a good school that works well with their family. He offered one caveat.

“Now that we’re coming out of COVID, everything is a little bit up in the air,” Valant says. “If there’s one change that I would anticipate in enrollment numbers going forward, it’s going to be that we see movement from virtual charters back into brick and mortar schools, whether those are charter or traditional public.”

Maya Pottiger is a data journalist for Word in Black. She was previously a data journalist for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, where she earned both her BA and Master of Journalism. Her work has been featured...