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Michigan’s charters, virtual schools buck trend in falling enrollment

little young girl student learning virtual internet online class from school teacher by remote meeting
  • Enrollment gains in Michigan’s publicly funded charter schools did not offset an overall drop in public school enrollment, which fell by 7,400 last fall
  • For the 17th time in 18 years, charter school enrollment rose
  • Signs indicate that many of the students who left public schools during the pandemic have not returned

Michigan’s public schools continued to see enrollment drop in 2023 in a sign that most students who left during the first two years of the pandemic have not returned.

Public schools lost nearly 62,000 students in the fall of 2020 as parents reacted to decisions to keep classes online or in-person.

And although the public schools added nearly 6,000 students in 2021, the long-term downward trend has continued, with public schools enrolling nearly 6,100 fewer in 2022 and 7,400 fewer this past fall, a Bridge Michigan analysis of the latest enrollment data shows.


But the loss wasn’t equal: publicly funded charter schools continued to add students. And some private schools continued to see enrollment gains.


The Lansing Catholic Diocese added students in 2023, the third consecutive year of gains after years of declines in a district that stretches from Flint to Lansing, Jackson, Ann Arbor and down to Hillsdale.

“In recent times it’s unprecedented to have three years of growth,” said Dave Kerr, spokesperson for the district.

The drop in public school students is slightly less, year over year, than the drop in the state’s birth rate. But charter schools gained 1,500 students, or about 1%, and now have more than 152,000 students.

In 2018-19, 146,835 of Michigan’s public school students attended charters, or 9.7%. They now make up 10.6% of the 1.43 million public school students, gaining 5,200 students.

But overall, there were nearly 78,000 fewer public school students in 2023, down from 1.51 million in 2018 — meaning most of the losses were from traditional public schools.

“People are leaving traditional public schools, and a lot of them are choosing charter schools,” said Tara Kilbride, interim associate director of Michigan State University’s Education Policy Innovation Collaborative.

Charter schools in the state have enjoyed rising enrollment for all but one of the last 18 years.

During the pandemic, as many schools remained shuttered to in-person lessons in the fall of 2020, parents faced tough choices: Some wanted their children in a classroom and switched to private schools. And some whose districts remained in-person chose to homeschool.

It’s impossible to determine how many homeschooled students remain at home because the state does not track them.


Districts that saw the biggest drop during the pandemic have not bounced back:

  • In Detroit, enrollment fell by nearly 1,900 in fall of 2020 and another 256 in fall of 2021. Enrollment last fall, 48,476, is 0.6% below 2021’s 48,745 students.
  • The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County enrollment fell by nearly 1,200 students, or 9%, from fall of 2019 to fall of 2021 and it has fallen another 200 students since to just under 12,000 students. In fall of 2018 it had 13,642.
  • The Ann Arbor schools’ enrollment has slid the past two years, after it fell by over 1,000 between 2019 and 2021.
  • The Madison district in Oakland County lost a quarter of its enrollment in 2020 and another 21% since, including a 2% drop last fall.
  • The biggest-gaining districts were either virtual academies or charter schools like Highpoint Virtual Academy of Michigan. Its enrollment more than doubled in fall of 2020 to nearly 2,100 and then rose another 560 the next year. It continued to add students, reporting enrollment of 2,764 last fall.

Since most of a district’s funding comes from the state on a per-pupil basis, averaging $9,600 for traditional districts and $9,150 for charters, enrollment is crucial for districts.

Losses of students can force building closures and layoffs and impact the quality of education by limiting student opportunities.

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