10 percent increase in charter enrollment fuels growth

Public school enrollment in the District climbed 5 percent this school year, the largest growth rate in more than 40 years, city officials announced Wednesday.

Charter schools accounted for the majority of the growth, with a 10 percent increase. The public charter schools now enroll 43 percent of the city's 80,230 students, or 34,673 kids, compared with traditional schools' 45,557 students, the data show.

Sources: Office of the State Superintendent of Education and DC Public Charter School Board

Public school enrollment
Year DC Public Schools Public Charter Schools Overall
2012-2013 45,557 34,673 80,230
2011-2012 45,191 31,562 76,753
2010-2011 45,630 29,356 74,986
2009-2010 44,762 27,617 72,379
2008-2009 45,308 25,614 70,922
2007-2008 49,205 21,866 71,071

By comparison, DC Public Schools' enrollment grew by just less than 1 percent, or 366 kids.

"I think charter schools will make up the majority of our public school population within two years," said D.C. Councilman David Catania, who heads the council's new Education Committee. "The trajectory is pretty stark."

The new data comes just a few weeks after DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the school system would close 15 underperforming

schools, although the enrollment data released Wednesday forecast a trend of climbing enrollment, with the growth concentrated in younger grades as the city's population grows.

With enrollment on the decline for years, the District has been actively targeting young children by expanding prekindergarten programs, a fact that Mayor Vincent Gray touted in his State of the District Address on Tuesday night.

But the new data don't change the need to close schools, said Melissa Salmanowitz, Henderson's spokeswoman.

"We are glad to see that enrollment has increased," she said. "We still had many significantly underenrolled schools, which prevent us from providing the opportunities that we know all students deserve."

Between 2008 and 2010, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee also closed 25 schools.

DCPS' closures of traditional public schools is likely part of the reason parents are increasingly choosing charters, said David Pickens, executive director of DC School Reform Now. "You have a bunch of parents who are disgruntled with the traditional system ... and they're not really sure where they're going to go, what their options are."

He said charters' growth is fueled by their aggressive marketing, pointing to events like the DC Public Charter School Expo every January.

Since the District has no true uniform system of comparing the qualities of charters versus traditional schools, parents are relying on these marketing campaigns and word of mouth to determine the best education options for their children, Catania said.

If traditional public schools want to compete, individual school leaders should start marketing their schools themselves, not waiting for DCPS' central office to do something, Pickens said.

The District should learn to embrace the charter schools, said Robert Cane, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, which advocates for charters.

"The government has never embraced the charter schools, so all of this growth is happening, in a manner of speaking, in spite of the government," he said.