Making sense of Florida’s charter school growth as enrollment passes 250,000

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This year, more than 250,000 Florida students are attending charter schools. They now enroll more than one every 11 public-school students in the state. If Florida’s charter schools were counted together as a school district, it would be the third-largest in the state and among the 10 largest in the country.

The growth of Florida’s charter schools has been so rapid that this year, even as their enrollment has increased by 21,000 students (from 229,428 the year before), it may in some ways be leveling off.

Data from the Department of Education’s fall enrollment survey show charter school enrollment increasing by 9 percent this year. That means the 2014-15 school year could be the first since 2007-08 that Florida’s charter school enrollment did not grow by double-digit percentage points.

Over the past five years, the number of students enrolled in Florida’s charter schools has risen by about 113,000 students. Enrollment in all public schools has increased by 122,000 students during that time (based on state membership data) — meaning that since the state has emerged from the Great Recession, charters have accounted for nearly all the total growth in public schools.

Charter public enrollment graph
Over the past five years, charter school growth has largely eclipsed the growth of public schools overall (which also includes charter schools).

As the graph above shows, this is the first school year in that period when the growth of public schools overall significantly exceeded that of charter schools.

This could be chalked up to ordinary year-to-year fluctuations, rather than signs of a slowdown. No individual district is growing anywhere close to as quickly as the state’s charter schools are collectively.

Still, it’s worth noting that it has become harder to open a charter school in Florida. Fewer charters are applying to local school boards, and fewer are being approved  trends captured in this chart, which state school choice director Adam Miller presented last week to the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee:

Charter school applications graph
Fewer charter schools are applying to open, and they’re having a harder time getting approved.

How will these trends affect charter school growth in the future? Do they help explain why charter school growth appears to be leveling off while district-run schools are growing again? What kinds of charters are being rejected or withdrawing applications before school boards can decide them: Deserving schools facing political pushback, or unqualified schools that shouldn’t be authorized?

Those are questions that arise from the numbers, worth exploring in future posts. In the meantime, the Department of Education has produced a school-by-school breakdown of charter school enrollment in the state, which can be downloaded here.

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