SALT LAKE CITY — Public school enrollment swelled to more than 600,000 in 2012, including high percentage gains for both charter schools and minority students, according to data released Friday by the Utah State Office of Education.
The numbers represent 2.2 percent growth over 2011, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the state office of education. There are now 600,985 students enrolled in Utah public schools.
Peterson said the growth is slightly higher than officials' expectations. He also said the increase indicates the state is returning to historical levels after year-to-year growth slowed during the economic recession.
"We're now coming back up," he said, "and we anticipate accelerating."
Charter schools now account for 8 percent of Utah's public school enrollment, exceeding 50,000 students for the first time after a 13.2 percent jump in enrollment over 2011.
Peterson said the number of students in Utah charter schools, which are independently managed but receive public funding, is expected to grow in 2013 with the opening of eight new charters with a combined capacity of 3,800 students.
Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said she was not surprised by the large jump in charter school enrollment and added that she expects that segment of public enrollment to continue to grow at large rates.
There are tens of thousands of students on charter school wait lists, and the demand will only grow as parents and their children recognize the innovative options charters provide, Clark said.
"It's really great evidence that the charter school experiment that started more than a decade ago is exceeding our expectations," she said.
Minority students saw a smaller percentage gain than their charter school counterparts but continued to outpace the state's overall trend. The number of minority students jumped by 5.6 percent over 2011, or more than 7,000 students.
Utah's 137,647 minority students now account for 23 percent of the state's public education population.
"Utah is growing more diverse and is growing to better reflect the U.S. population as a whole," Peterson said.
The growth presents a number of challenges for the state and school districts. Beyond per-pupil funding, which is a perennial topic in Utah politics, the diversification and expansion of the state's student population creates questions about student performance, school capacity and teacher training.
Associate State Superintendent Judy Park echoed Peterson, saying student growth is expected to continue, if not increase, for the foreseeable future. Funding growth is a standard priority recommended to the Legislature each year by the state school board, she said.
"Our number of students is only going to increase," Park said. "As you get more students, it costs more to educate them."
The data also reflect an increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students, who now account for 36.6 percent of Utah's total public school population, Peterson said.
Alpine School District retained its position as the largest district in the state with 70,811 students, according to the data. Davis School District secured the second spot with 68,342 students, pulling ahead of the 67,600-student Jordan School District that was effectively tied with Davis in 2011.
Alpine spokeswoman Rhonda Bromley said the numbers are within the district's projections. In 2009, Alpine opened its newest high school, West Lake High School, and voters passed a $210 million bond last fall to prepare for future construction.
"We've been growing for a long time, so we plan for that," Bromley said. "The priority is the needs of those individual students."
Daggett School District, which is based in Manila, is the state's smallest district with 181 students.