While enrollment growth in Michigan’s public charter schools has leveled off in recent years, updated estimates for the current school year show that total charter school enrollment in the state will experience its first decline since charters were authorized in the mid-1990s. This will break a 21-year trend of continuous growth.

The new estimates were included in materials reported at the biennial Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference that was held on January 11. The primary purpose of the conference is to provide an update of the national and Michigan economies along with state tax revenue projections for the current and coming fiscal years. These estimates are instrumental in setting the state budget for the upcoming year. Additionally, the conference is charged with estimating public K-12 enrollment for the current school year and the next two years.

The updated statewide enrollment numbers show a decline of approximately 7,700 students in the current school year (2017-18); 6,400 fewer students enrolling in traditional public schools and 1,300 fewer students enrolling in charter schools compared to 2016-17. The declines in the total and the traditional district enrollment figures are consistent with long-standing trends; however, the charter school decline is the first of its kind.

Michigan’s public K-12 school enrollment has been characterized by three broad trends since the early-2000s, as seen in the chart below.

First, total K-12 enrollment has declined consistently since the 2002-03 school year. The annual enrollment losses sped up just prior to the onset of the Great Recession and continued through the 2014-15 school year before slowing in recent years. Overall, the total public school enrollment in the state is down from 1.71 million students in 2002-03 to 1.48 million students in 2017-18, a 13 percent decline. This represents a one percent average annual decline.

The enrollment decline in traditional public school districts is the second major trend. As a group, traditional districts have shouldered the entirety of the enrollment decline that the state has experienced. Traditional districts began experiencing annual losses starting with the 1999-2000 school year, even before the statewide trend set in. No single cause can be attributed to the enrollment loss, but rather many factors have contributed, including the state’s stagnate population growth arising from the economic challenges of the 2000s, the aging of the general population, and the effects of parents taking advantage of the state’s expanding school choice options.

Collectively, this sector has experienced a 19 percent student decline between 2002-03 and 2017-18. Over this period individual districts’ enrollments varied considerably, with many seeing large and continuous slides (e.g., Detroit, Flint, Lansing).

Finally, the enrollment growth in the charter school sector has been the most consistent and sustained trend. Roughly 146,000 students are enrolled in charter schools across the state in the current year (2017-18), more than twice the number from the 2002-03 school year (about 67,300 students). Collectively, charter schools have seen average annual enrollment growth of five percent since 2002-03, despite the shrinking statewide public K-12 student pool. While annual rates have fluctuated over time, the sector experienced a number of years with double digit growth.

The most likely explanation for the charter school enrollment decline is the reduction in the number of schools in 2017-18; more schools closed in the fall 2017 than opened (11 schools closed and only 5 opened). The number of charter schools operating in Michigan peaked in 2014-15 at 302 schools, but since declined to 293 schools today. It appears that statewide enrollment has caught up with this recent trend.

Does this signal the beginning of a new enrollment trend for the charter school sector in Michigan or simply a reset and the establishment of a new “base” from which charter school enrollment will continue to grow?

The answer to this question is likely the latter for a couple of reasons. First, state officials estimate flat charter enrollment for next school year (2018-19) and a very small (400 student) increase for 2019-20. While these are early estimates and much can change, the increase, albeit small, is consistent with the long-term trend. Therefore, from a historical perspective, it is likely that the charter enrollment trend is experiencing a pause rather than an inflection point.

Second, while there is no doubt the explosive growth enjoyed by the charter sector during the 1990s and 2000s has abated, nothing suggests that demand for charter schools has reversed course. Each year, schools across the state continue to open for a variety of reasons. This year, it turns out the number of school closings outnumbered the number of openings (a rare occurrence in the history of the sector). The number of openings and closings each year will be a key determinant in overall charter enrollment going forward.

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