As students leave district schools, charters and vocational schools see growth

Financial implications loom from enrollment shifts

MASSACHUSETTS PUBLIC SCHOOLS have seen a large decline in enrollment this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  But the drop is not spread evenly across the public school system. Both charter schools and vocational technical schools have actually seen population increases, even as attendance at traditional district public schools dropped precipitously. 

The shift cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic, but the disruption caused by coronavirus appears to have accelerated enrollment trends. Changes in which schools students are attending will have major financial implications for school districts, since state funding is tied to enrollment.  

“If charters are able to siphon kids out, the money will be extracted from the school districts which are now pressed for everything they can do to cover the extra costs of educating kids in a dual system,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.  

According to statistics recently released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education based on reports from schools as of October 1, overall enrollment in public schools dropped by 3.9 percent this year, or approximately 37,400 students – from 948,800 students last year to 911,400 this year. That primarily reflected younger students, in pre-k and kindergarten, staying home, and older students shifting to private schools and homeschooling. 

But an analysis of the remaining public school population shows that the loss was not felt equally. (See interactive bar graph below.) 

Enrollment in public charter schools increased by 3.7 percent, or 1,278 students, between last year and this year. Meanwhile, regional vocationaltechnical and agricultural schools saw an increase in enrollment of 2 percent, or 530 students. 

If one were to exclude the vocational and charter schools and two “virtual schools,” public online education programs that saw big enrollment jumps this year, traditional public school districts actually lost 5.4 percent of their population (39,100 students). 

Kevin Farr, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, said the increased interest in vocational schools is not new, but the pandemic “has exacerbated the enrollment trend.” Data compiled by the association show that between 2005 and 2020, enrollment in charter schools increased by 150 percent, or 30,500 students; enrollment in vocational schools increased by 24 percent, or 9,600 students; and enrollment in traditional public schools dropped by 7 percent, or 67,600 students. 

The recent shift from traditional public schools to charter or vocational schools cannot be chalked up simply to increased interest during the pandemic.  

On the charter school side, the publicly-funded but independently operated schools are subject to state-imposed caps and much of the expansion was planned before the pandemic. At Alma del Mar charter school in New Bedford, for example, the school opened with four grades last year and added two grades this year – resulting in 144 new students. Virtually all the charter schools with the largest numbers of new students recently underwent a planned expansion. 

Charter schools also have different enrollment models than district schools, since school sizes are limited, students are chosen by lottery, and there are often waitlists. Jon Clark, co-director of the Brooke charter schools, said there may be churn due to the pandemic, but if a student leaves a charter school, “there’s generally someone else there to take their spot.”  

Marc Kenen,  executive director of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, said he thinks some charter schools have been better able than district schools to maintain stable enrollment because they were better-prepared to adapt to the pandemic. “It’s the flexibility that is inherent in the charter school model that has allowed us to adapt better to the ever-changing environment of public education in a pandemic,” Kenen said. “You’re seeing charters be able to move their resources and their staffing around to be able to meet the needs of students and their families.”  

Like most of its surrounding districts, Pioneer Valley Performing Arts is now operating largely remotely – a decision made early on, while some traditional districts were still wavering. Kenen said it invested heavily in professional development, and in the first week, the school delivered hotspots to all students who lacked internet access. 

Some charters can offer more in-person options than district schools. Charter schools generally do not have to negotiate with teachers’ unions, which have often resisted returning in person. They may also have more flexibility due to their smaller size. 

Students at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School work on a lathe project as part of a precision manufacturing class. (Courtesy photo)

At Old Sturbridge Academy charter school, which added a new grade this year, school is fully in-person while the surrounding districts are mostly hybrid. Executive director Jim Donahue, who is also president and CEO of Old Sturbridge Village, said the school can take advantage of being on the campus of the living history museum, expanding into function spaces that Old Sturbridge Village is not using this year to create separate “micro-campuses.” The school is offering free before and after school programs so parents who do not want to send their children on the bus can pick them up or drop them off. Old Sturbridge Village created a “one-room schoolhouse” where children of teachers and staff who are learning remotely can come during the day, allowing teachers who are also parents to more easily work in-person.  

Donahue said the school has gotten “a ton of inquiries” since the pandemic started, but its seats were already filled. 

However, not all charters have shown a preference for in-person education. At Alma del Mar, the school is primarily remote even though New Bedford schools are in a hybrid model. Executive director Will Gardner said the school wanted to avoid “diluting the quality of our overall academic program by trying to do both a remote program and an in-person program simultaneously.” Gardner said the school prioritized communication, and teachers call families weekly. Parent volunteers and school officials ensure families have meals, technology, and other necessities. A team meets weekly to discuss students who need extra help. Average online attendance has been 95 percent, similar to the school’s typical in-person attendance rate. 

Like charters, vocational schools have been growing for years, and many campuses were trying to increase their capacity before COVID-19 hit. Several vocational schools recently renovated or built new buildings. Vocational schools also often have waiting lists, so they can quickly replace students who leave. Vocational schools are also less hard hit with enrollment drops than regular districts because they are high schools, while the biggest enrollment drops in traditional districts took place in kindergarten and pre-k. 

Farr said some vocational schools are seeing increased interest from families who want in-person education. Because of the difficulty of teaching hands-on skills remotely, almost all vocational and technical schools adopted a hybrid model, where students spend some time on campus.  

But beyond that, Ed Bouquillon, superintendent of Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington, said he thinks the value of a vocational education has been becoming more evident to parents for years. He has seen the pandemic influence students’ choices of what to study, with less interest in hospitality and more interest in health care and engineering. “The pandemic had a nuanced impact on vocational schools that really reflects what’s going on in the world of work,” Bouquillon said. 

Luis Lopes, superintendent of the Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School in South Easton, said similarly that he is seeing growing awareness that acquiring a skill in high school will give students an advantage in employment. Lopes said over the last 15 years or so, his school has grown from under 1,200 students to 1,500, with a long waiting list. 

A ninth grade student at Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical School measures copper pipe during a plumbing course. (Courtesy photo)

While students who are moving to charter or vocational schools are not leaving the public school system, merely shifting which part of the system they attend, the move has financial implications for individual school districts, since state and local tuition money follows the child. As more students go to vocational or charter schools, those schools get their tuition money. (If students go to private school or are homeschooled, the public school system loses that money altogether.)  

The state’s school funding formula holds districts harmless, so no district will see a drop in funding due to enrollment decreases next year, but districts with lower enrollment will not increase their funding allotment. The funding for the school year that starts in September 2021 will be based on the enrollment numbers from October 1, 2020. 

Colin Jones, senior policy analyst at the liberal-leaning Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, worried that if policymakers assume the district enrollment drop is permanent and students then return as the pandemic ebbs, schools won’t have money to teach them. “You’re baking in a bunch of changes that aren’t real, then not funding districts for kids that will show up,” he said. 

There are also budgetary implications for the state. If a student attends a vocational school, the reimbursement rate is around $4,500 higher than at a traditional public school to reflect added costs for equipment and staff. If a student attends a charter school, their home district also gets some tuition money for several years.  

Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, which favors school choice policies, said with strong public and non-public education options in Massachusetts, “it’s not surprising to me that people are clamoring for more choices.” He said part of what appears to be happening is people dislike how traditional public schools are handling the pandemic and are voting with their feet. “I don’t think you can see it as a ringing endorsement of the way they handled the school reopening and remote learning,” Gass said. 

Gass said the financial implications are potentially “huge” given the enrollment shifts. But, he noted, “A lot of it still remains an open question: How many students are going to be returning and in what places are they going to be returning?”