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Charter schools continue to grow across the Tampa Bay area

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Charter school enrollment continues to climb across the nation and in Florida schools.

Student enrollment has gradually climbed back up to pre-pandemic levels. But the data shows that more families are choosing to send their kids to charter schools rather than traditional public schools, in line with national trends.

School districts across the nation, including in the Tampa Bay area, are seeing more students enroll in charter schools rather than traditional public schools.

A report published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that over the last four school years (2019-20 to 2022-23), charter school enrollment increased by 9%. That's a gain of about 300,000 students.

Meanwhile, traditional public schools saw a net loss of 3.5% as enrollment slowly rebounds from pandemic-related declines.

The trend is mirrored in Florida as well. Statewide student enrollment has increased overall, with charter schools leading the growth.

The number of charter school students statewide increased by 53,148 or from 12% to 13% of total public school enrollment, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Students in the state's non-charter schools have increased to 2,488,140. However, that's still down about 41,600 students compared to pre-pandemic numbers.

Out of the 42 states included in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools analysis, 40 saw an increase in students enrolling in charter schools.

The report states that, while charter schools still make up a small share of the nation's public school enrollment — about 7.5% — it's a steadily growing segment of public education.

In the Manatee County School District, enrollment in both charter and non-charter schools has increased. According to school district spokesperson Michael Barber, growth and development on the eastern side of the county, especially, is driving the student population boom.

The district gained more than 1,200 students since the end of last school year, according to Barber. A new K-8, middle school and high school are slated to be built in the next five to seven years to accommodate the continued growth.

"We have a tremendous amount of development going on, especially east of I-75," said Barber, "All of our schools [in that area] are at or over capacity."

Charter schools are contributing to that growth more significantly as well, said Barber. The district has about 50 traditional public schools and 15 charter schools, three of which were created in the last few years. And, Barber said, multiple groups are in line to apply for charter school status currently.

"We've never lived in a more competitive environment for education," said Barber, "There will be gains and losses [in student enrollment]. Each school wants to present itself as the best option for parents, families and students."

School options are expanding

Sofoklis Goulas, an economics and education researcher with the Brookings Institution said the COVID-19 pandemic impacted where families choose to send their kids to school now.

"Families feel that charter schools might be a more stable environment in a changing landscape after the COVID-19 pandemic," said Goulas, "There are many students who have learning losses and, thus, they might require some individualized attention. And families might have different work arrangements after the pandemic, leading to their demand for more flexible schooling arrangements."

Likewise, Goulas added, parents have increasingly looked to private schools to cater to their children's needs as well. With the state's expansion of its private school voucher program, that option has been made easier for some families.

The 2023-24 school year marked the first in which all students, regardless of family income status, could apply for the public funding that supplements private school tuition, home schooling and other education needs.

However, most of the new students who applied for the program were already in private schools, according to main voucher distributor Step Up For Students. About 13% or 16,096 students came from public schools.

Homeschooling has also been on the rise, especially in Hillsborough County.

Since 2019, the number of school-aged children not enrolled in public schools (which includes charter and non-charter schools) has steadily increased in the greater Tampa Bay region.

In other words, the school-aged population is increasing at a higher rate than public school enrollment overall in many area districts, explained Goulas.

Public school advocates warn that as the voucher program expands, state funds and student enrollment will continue to be diverted from school districts.

Meanwhile, Goulas said we need better data about where students are going to school. He added that even with reports from public schools, private schools and available home schooling data, there are children not accounted for.

"We need to monitor student flows between different types of schools. This is very important so we can understand what families want," said Goulas.

At the state level, legislators are considering ways to make public schools more competitive with private school options. A series of bills aimed at removing "burdensome red tape" on public schools is making its way through the state legislature.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.