Jun 1, 2022 - News

D.C. bypasses national public school enrollment drop

Change in enrollment in Washington, D.C., public schools
Data: Includes DCPS and public charter data. American Enterprise Institute. Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Public schools have seen a significant decrease in enrollment nationally since the start of the pandemic, but D.C.’s public charter schools have seen an uptick in K-12 students — particularly high schoolers — over the last few years.

Why it matters: For some families, the ability of public charter schools to govern themselves during the pandemic has made them more attractive than the city’s traditional public schools. 

  • D.C.'s public charter schools are publicly funded but individually run and separate from the DCPS system.
  • “I think DCPS did not do a great job helping schools adapt the education they could provide to the needs and desires of their students,” Ward 3 school board member Ruth Wattenberg says of the shift.

By the numbers: According to American Enterprise Institute data, DCPS saw a decrease of about 500 K-12 students from the first pandemic school year to the second. The decrease was about 400 students from the 2020-2021 school year to 2021-2022. These drops are significantly smaller than what other school districts are facing nationwide.

The city’s public charters saw enrollment increase by almost 1200 students from the 2019-2020 school year to 2020-2021, and by almost 400 students from the 2020-2021 school year to 2021-2022.

  • Some of those increases can be attributed to charter schools expanding their grade offerings.

The intrigue: While elementary school enrollment has dropped and middle school enrollment has increased slightly, high school enrollment is up for DCPS and many D.C. public charters.

  • D.C. does follow nationwide trends when it comes to the youngest students. Public school enrollment drops nationally have been largest specifically for those in non-compulsory grades like pre-K and kindergarten.
  • D.C.’s high school graduation rate was on the decline for years, D.C. Policy Center’s Education Policy Initiative director Chelsea Coffin tells Axios. But it increased during the pandemic as some graduation requirements were relaxed or waived.

What to watch: Coffin says the decrease in D.C. births will impact public school enrollment in the future, especially for younger students.

What they say: DCPS sent a statement saying in part—DC Public Schools is proud to provide our students with a supportive and enriching educational environment. Similar to other public school districts across the country, DCPS saw a slight decline in enrollment this school year as we fully returned to in-person learning … Enrollment for the upcoming school year is already ahead of where we were this time last year.”

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