Palm Beach County’s traditional public schools saw their biggest influx of new students in more than a decade this school year, as parents reversed a years-long trend by overwhelmingly choosing district-operated schools over charter schools.
The number of students attending county public schools – both district-run schools and charters – passed the 190,000 mark this year. And for the first time this decade, the vast majority of the new growth went to district-run schools.
That’s an abrupt turnaround from only a few years ago, when the county’s charter schools dominated new growth, setting off panic among school district leaders and prompting a marketing push to convince parents to reconsider traditional schools.
Just three years ago, the county’s charter schools added 4,100 students in a single year while district administrators say enrollment in their schools fell by 700.
That trend began to turn around last year, when a slight majority of new growth went to district schools. By this year, the trend had fully reversed: district schools added 2,435 students, and charters added just 330.
For the district-run schools, it was the largest influx of new students since at least 2006. Some educators say it may mark the end of what had been several years of fast growth among the county’s charter schools, which are publicly financed but privately managed.
“I think parents are beginning to realize that the school district offers far more than what more charters can deliver, and people are coming back,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said. “I think we’ll see a flattening in the increase in charter school enrollment.”
Public schools prize enrollment growth because more students mean more money. State government allocates money to schools based on how many students enroll, so more students mean a revenue boost and an opportunity to make under-enrolled schools more efficient.
That race for new students has pitted district schools in a battle with charters for families’ hearts and minds, and it has led to bad blood.
Last year, the school board blocked two charter school companies from opening new campuses, a move that led to court challenges and what critics called an illegal attempt to eliminate more competition. Ralph Arza, leader of a charter school advocacy group, called Palm Beach County “ground zero for anti-charter school action.”
This year’s jump in enrollment in district-run schools took school leaders by surprise. They had expected far less growth in district schools and far more in charters.
As of October, the county’s district-run schools enrolled 166,326 K-12 students, while charter schools enrolled 20,863.
For the school district, the enrollment boost is producing early benefits: This year, the school board agreed to give teachers a 3 percent salary raise despite receiving only a 1 percent increase in per-student money from the state.
The size of the raise surprised many teachers, and Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa said it had been made possible by the money generated by the influx of new students.
Despite a dropoff this year, not everyone is convinced that the era of big charter school growth is over. Arza said that Donald Trump’s presidential victory is likely to usher in an emphasis on school choice, which may enhance interest in charter schools.
“You’re going to see more encouragement to empower parents to have a choice,” Arza said. “Charters grow because some mom or dad believes that a charter school can provide a better education for their child.”
He also said that, under Avossa, the school district has become less hostile to charter school companies, raising the prospect of greater cooperation and — perhaps — more new charter campuses.
The increasing growth raises a host of other problems, however. More students means a need to hire more teachers, and officials say it is increasingly hard to find and hire talented teachers.
Furthermore, the student growth is not happening uniformly across the county. In many cases, the growth is in popular schools that are already crowded, straining resources at those schools.
In September, before the official attendance numbers were calculated, 29 of 165 traditional schools were deemed overcrowded under the state’s formula. Some of the crowded schools that became even more crowded this year include Forest Hill High and John I. Leonard High.
Voters’ decision in November to approve a one-cent sales tax increase is expected to open the door to a new construction boom, with five new schools planned during the next decade.
The five schools include a high school in central Palm Beach County, a high school and an elementary west of Royal Palm Beach and two other elementaries, one west of Boca Raton and another near Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter.
“The most immediate need is the high school,” Jason Link, the district’s expert on enrollment and demographics, said in an interview in October. “We’re just running out of space in the central area.”