New Pa. data shows how the pandemic gave a big boost to cyber charter schools

As expected, cyber charter schools saw a massive enrollment spike. But that wasn’t the only finding embedded in the new data.

(AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

(AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, file)

New data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Education shows that the pandemic has caused a small, but significant enrollment decline at traditional public schools, while increasing the share of cyber charter students.

It’s also revealed an interesting divide. While public schools in urban and suburban counties have lost students, schools in more rural counties have largely tread water.

Overall, preliminary enrollment data shows a 1.7% drop in total public school enrollment, which equates to about 30,000 students statewide. The dip was more pronounced in kindergarten, where enrollment fell from 115,275 students last year to 110,803 students in 2020 — nearly a 4% decline.

One type of public school has gotten more popular, though: the state’s cyber charter schools. Enrollment in the publicly funded but privately managed online schools jumped from 38,266 to 60,890. That’s a 59% enrollment spike.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Enrollment in brick-and-mortar charter schools, meanwhile, was almost completely flat, increasing by about 100 students.

Enrollment declines in Pennsylvania’s public schools were largely concentrated in the state’s suburban and urban areas.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Keystone Crossroads analyzed traditional public school enrollment from the state’s 10 most-densely populated counties.* In those 10 counties, enrollment in traditional public school districts fell by 6.9%.

In the rest of Pennsylvania’s 57 counties, enrollment in traditional school districts actually grew by 0.4%.

That stark split is significant because an analysis by the PLS Reporter found that schools in Pennsylvania’s rural counties largely offered some sort of in-person learning this year. Schools in suburban and urban areas were much more likely to offer virtual learning only.

Ed Albert, who heads the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, says it’s hard to know why rural counties didn’t see large enrollment drops. He thinks for many families the “uncertainty” created by the pandemic made it simpler to stay in their local schools.

Every year, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education releases preliminary enrollment numbers that can shift before they’re finalized

The student counts matter for a couple reasons.

First, they help illuminate how parents have navigated an unprecedented disruption to public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. They suggest some families have left the public system and a greater number have delayed their kids’ entry into public schools.

But they also show that the exodus has not been overwhelming. The vast majority of public school parents in Pennsylvania did not withdraw their children.

That does not mean parents simply stayed put.

The unprecedented interest in cyber charter schools shows that thousands of families did seek an alternative. If these enrollment patterns remain after the pandemic, it would represent a significant change in how thousands of Pennsylvania students learn. It could also have financial implications, since school districts pay a per-student tuition fee for each district resident attending a cyber charter school.

David Hardy, a longtime school-choice advocate, believes some of those students will stay in cyber charters for the long-run.

“I think at the end of this they’ll have a net positive enrollment increase,” said Hardy. “How big of a positive? I’m not sure it’s gonna be gigantic.”

Hardy also believes the pandemic has actually suppressed student movement, arguing that some families would rather stick with schools they already know while the pandemic throws everything into turmoil.

“Once the pandemic’s over, I think you’re gonna see some movement among all kinds of schools,” Hardy said.

*Pennsylvania’s most densely populated counties are Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Allegheny, Bucks, Lehigh, Northampton, Chester, Lancaster, Dauphin. This count only includes students enrolled in school district schools. It does not include students at technical schools, IUs, or charter schools.

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal