May 20, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The pandemic pushed an exodus from public schools

Data: Return to Learn; Chart: Axios Visuals

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on virtually every aspect of America's public schools and now parents are pulling their kids out of the system all together.

Why it matters: With school funding directly tied to enrollment, experts warn that the decline in students may carry deeper repercussions, with some schools potentially forced to close completely.

By the numbers: Districts in the country with the most remote classes lost 4.4% of their students, compared to a 1.1% drop for those who held school in person, according to a national survey by the American Enterprise Institute and the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College.

  • New York saw the most significant drop in enrollment statewide from 2020 to 2022, with nearly 6% decline.
  • Enrollment in New York City's public schools, the country's largest school district, dropped by 9.5% over two years, the Washington Post reports.
  • Public school enrollment in California for the first time in two decades fell below six million this academic year, per statewide data.

Driving the news: "This school year has had continued uncertainty for parents: 'Will my kid be able to go to school and have stability in their learning environment?'" Thomas Dee, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, said.

  • "A likely explanation for the sustained or even accelerated enrollment loss is parents looking for safe harbor for their kids, looking for some continuity through this," Dee said.
  • The uncertainty of schooling pushed some parents to send their children to private or parochial schools, while others opted for home-schooling.
  • Other parents delayed their child starting kindergarten, Dee said. The AEI study found that kindergarten enrollment in the most remote districts was hit the hardest, losing 8.1% of kids enrolling.

The big picture: AEI said that districts that offered in-person learning were more likely to experience an enrollment rebound than those that stayed virtual.

Between the lines: Dee sounded the alarm on those students who are not accounted for in statewide enrollment data.

  • In California, for instance, public school enrollment over the last two years dropped by 271,000, while private school enrollment increased by only about 12,000 students.
  • Some of the discrepancy in the data may be attributed to students who switched to an alternative method of learning, such as homeschooling, and were not counted by the state, Dee said.
  • "But the other concern is some kids may just be truant and if that's so, these are likely to be our most educationally vulnerable," he said.
  • "From my perspective, that's one of the big unanswered questions, ... what do we know about kids who may have fallen through the cracks in the system?"

The bottom line: The decline in public school enrollment is likely to continue, at least for as long as the pandemic persists, Dee said.

  • "There's going to be continued health uncertainty and I think parents are going to be concerned about whether public schools can provide a stable learning environment for the kids," Dee said.
  • "For the planning horizon that most school districts have, this is the new normal."

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