K-12 enrollments slow, but charters are booming

Dr. John E. Stapleford
Dr. John E. Stapleford Guest Columnist

The objective of ECONOMIC INSIGHTS is to bridge the gap between the latest economic data and what it means for Delaware businesses.

What’s happening? 

Overall Delaware K-12 school enrollment is rising very slowly, yet substantial changes are happening.

Over the past ten years (2003-2013, the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Education), K-12 enrollments in Delaware have risen just 3 percent. That enrollment currently stands at 155,000 students.

As evidenced in the chart below, however, the changes in enrollment by school type have been anything but stable. As enrollment in traditional public schools rose 8 percent, the enrollment in charter schools jumped 77 percent. Simultaneously, the enrollment in Delaware private schools dropped 28 percent. (Note that students who are home-schooled must first enroll in the public school system.)

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Why is it happening? 

By a variety of measures, including test scores and college readiness, Delaware’s traditional public schools have not been doing well. For example, in 2005 two-thirds of Delaware’s public school eighth-graders tested functionally illiterate in reading and math (NAEP). Ten years later the test results for eighth-graders were exactly the same. During that time nearly $22 billion of state, local and federal funds had been expended, ranking Delaware’s public schools No. 7 among the states in spending per pupil.

In reaction, some Delaware households with school-age children relocated out of state. Meanwhile children from both the traditional public schools and private schools fled to the growing charter school system. Slow growth in personal income further accelerated the flight from the tuition-supported private schools.

Interestingly, the astounding growth in the charter school enrollment cannot be characterized as “white flight.” As of fall 2013, 30 percent of the traditional public school enrollment in Delaware was black, compared to 40 percent of the charter school enrollment. The corresponding white enrollment percentages are 48 percent vs. 44 percent.

A 2014 Friedman Foundation survey of registered voters in Delaware recorded that 72 percent of the respondents favored more school choice and 70 percent favored vouchers for Delaware. These sentiments ran across urban, suburban and rural, and across political party lines.

The implications for business? 

The lack of leadership from the Delaware business community with regard to traditional public school reform appears puzzling. Businesses have a smaller pool of reading and math literate high school graduates from which to hire. At the same time, however, given the lower productivity of that labor pool, businesses can save on labor costs. Between 2009 and 2014, for example, Census data shows that the inflation-adjusted median earnings of Delaware high school graduates fell 12 percent.

Regardless, as the demand for charter schools evidences, Delaware parents are anxious to find quality education for their children. 


Dr. John E. Stapleford is consulting economist with DECON First. Contact him at [email protected]

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