Low Enrollment Plagues Many Charter Schools

The mainstream media has long made it seem like parents from coast to coast are frantically clamoring to get their kids into a “limited” number of charter schools. And because there is supposedly not enough space in these charter schools, students are put on a waiting list to get into the school.

This neoliberal disinformation is meant to reinforce the prejudice that public schools are “dreadful,” that they must be escaped at all costs, that only charter schools can save the day, and that the number of charter schools in the country should increase immediately to accommodate more kids.

The neoliberal “waiting list” disinformation also pressures parents and others to ignore the fact that charter schools close every week, are mired in scandal every day, and have fewer experienced teachers and fewer nurses than public schools. Many charter schools, moreover, do not provide transportation for students or offer the range of programs found in most public schools. It is no surprise that these schools governed by unelected private persons have high student, teacher, and principal turnover rates (see here and here).

The National Center for Education Policy has produced work showing that national waitlist numbers at charter schools are greatly exaggerated, unreliable, and self-serving. Additional factual information about inflated waitlists and problematic enrollment practices in charter schools can be found at the Diane Ravitch Blog, which is visited millions of times a year.

The fact is that many charter schools struggle to meet their enrollment goals, exposing the long-standing chasm between reality and media disinformation about the popularity of these outsourced schools. Many charter schools have no waiting lists at all.

Some examples:

WWLP News in Massachusetts reported on January 19, 2023 that The Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Chicopee, Massachusetts will be closing in summer 2023 due to low enrollment and poor financial conditions.

On January 12, 2023, the Denver Post reported that, “The Denver school board hasn’t voted to close a charter school since 2011, though more than a dozen [charter schools] have surrendered their charters voluntarily over the past decade, often because of low enrollment.”

A November 17, 2022 article in Chalkbeat reports that, “After months of controversy surrounding Urban Prep Academy, the Illinois board of education ended the charter school’s agreement for its downtown campus Thursday, citing enrollment declines.”

According to a September 24, 2022 article in the Tallahassee Democrat (Florida), “Red Hills Academy cited low enrollment and processing issues as reasons for shuttering just weeks after its grand opening. The last day of school will be Sept. 30 [2022].” Indeed, “The school needed [only] 90 students to pay expenses but only had 30 enrolled.”

On October 11, 2022, the Times Record of Maine informed the public that the Maine Charter School Commission denied renewal of the contract for Harpswell Coastal Academy, “citing low enrollment numbers, high chronic absenteeism rates and an unstable financial structure, among other concerns that have persisted over several years.”

On August 24, 2022, the Charleston Gazette-Mail [West Virginia] carried the following headline: “WV Online Charter Schools Far Below Enrollment Projections.”

A January 4, 2022 article in The Lens states that:

IDEA Oscar Dunn charter school, which opened in New Orleans [Louisiana] less than three years ago, will close at the end of the 2021-2022 school year in May amid declining student enrollment citywide, according to an announcement from the NOLA Public Schools district.

The school is the second NOLA Public Schools district charter school this week that officials have said will close due to low enrollment. On Monday, FirstLine Schools announced it would close Live Oak Academy. Both announcements come weeks after a study showed the city’s schools enroll about 47,000 students but have roughly 3,000 open seats.

Nearly all schools in New Orleans are privately-operated charter schools, leaving parents and kids with few real schooling choices.

On May 25, 2021, KUTV2 News in Utah reported that:

Beyond the Books has discovered that the number of students signing up at Utah charters schools has decreased for the first time in almost a decade. In addition some charter schools are facing re-enrollment issues. A review of retention rates at Utah’s 130 charter schools reveals that in the most recent year, 25% of the schools have seen their ability to keep students enrolled have dropped to concerning levels.

The Ithaca Journal [New York] reported on December 30, 2019 that, “During a charter schools committee meeting, the SUNY Board of Trustees voted to place New Roots Charter School on probation because of fiscal mismanagement, low enrollment, and the admission of students outside the acceptable grade range.”

On April 19, 2018 the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that two charter schools, DuBois High School of Leadership and Public Policy and the DuBois High School of Arts and Technology, will close due to low enrollment and other problems often found in charter schools. The schools were run by Willie Herenton, the former Memphis mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent.

A June 2, 2016 piece from Idaho Ed News lists three different charter schools that closed due to low enrollment.

Many other examples can be given. Experience shows and research confirms that education and society do not need “innovative” charter schools, let alone more “innovative” charter schools. Besides the long-standing problems listed above, such unaccountable schools increase segregation and harm public schools and the public interest. The academic, management, and fiscal track record of charter schools, especially cyber charter schools, is very poor on the whole. ((Factual descriptive information on the various problems in the charter school sector can found by searching for “Shawgi Tell” at Dissident Voice.))

Not only do serious problems persist in the privatized charter school sector decade after decade, many are actually increasing and becoming more scandalous. The public cannot afford to have billions of dollars squandered every day on pay-the-rich schemes like charter schools. This money rightly belongs to public schools and should stay in public hands instead of being funneled to narrow private interests under the banner of high ideals.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at stell5@naz.edu.. Read other articles by Shawgi.