Enrollment in the city's public charter schools continued to boom this year with 8 percent more students, while DC Public Schools saw their numbers drop, according to the District's official count released Monday.

Combined, District enrollment jumped 2 percent, but the ratio between DCPS and the city's charters continues to shift. Charter schools now claim 41 percent of the District's public school students, the second-highest rate in the country after New Orleans, and have been growing substantially for at least the past 10 years. This year, 31,562 students enrolled in public charters.

"Parents are choosing charter schools because they have confidence in the overall performance of the sector," said Scott Pearson, executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board.

The board has aggressively closed failing schools -- 12 in the last three years, with two more on the chopping block -- and approves a handful of new schools each year. It's an energy that analysts say is driving more parents away from DCPS and into the charter realm.

DCPS enrolled 45,630 students this year, a decline of 1 percent. The system failed to keep up the momentum of the previous school year, when the underperforming school system saw its first enrollment increase in 41 years.

"There's a greater sense that the charter system is innovating -- aggressively creating new schools and aggressively decreasing their portfolio of failing schools," said David Pickens, executive director of DC School Reform Now. "But there's a sense that DCPS is not doing that, in many circles."

Melissa Salmanowitz, spokeswoman for DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, said enrollment was stabilizing and that 80 percent of the losses were at 10 schools, mostly at the high-school and adult-education levels.

There was some growth at the earliest grades, with 3 percent more students enrolling in preschool, 2 percent more in kindergarten, and 3 percent more in grades 1 through 3.

"Parents are beginning to see progress in DCPS classrooms and we remain confident in our school leaders to continue bringing about the type of change that will bring more families into our schools," she said.

Last year, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee and former Mayor Adrian Fenty trumpeted the 2 percent PK-12 enrollment increase as a sign that parents were buying into the controversial school reforms championed by Rhee: school closures, mass firings of teachers deemed ineffective, and an intensified focus on data.

Even though these reforms have continued, the resignation of Rhee last October may have deterred some parents from sticking with DCPS, said Sarah Rosenberg, a K-12 policy analyst for independent think-tank Education Sector.

"Michelle Rhee was a figurehead -- for better or worse -- for the school system," Rosenberg said. "With her no longer in charge, the message of reform may be less powerful."


Enrollment over time
D.C. Public Schools65,47864,120 (-2%)61,407 (-4%)58,500 (-5%)54,975 (-6%)52,205 (-5%)49,123 (-6%)45,190 (-8%)44,718 (-1%)45,630 (+2%)45,191 (-1%)
Public charter Schools10,67911,452 (+5%)13,715 (+23%)15,493 (+13%)17,473 (+13%)19,733 (+13%)21,948 (+11%)25,732 (+17%)*27,661 (+8%)29,356 (+6%)31,562 (+8%)
Combined76,42775,572 (-1%)75,122 (-1%)73,993 (-2%)72,448 (-2%)71,938 (-1%)71,071 (-1%)70,922 (0%)72,379 (+2%)74,986 (+4%)76,753 (+2%)
*Charter schools saw extra growth this year when they absorbed a number of Catholic schools