Jan 9, 2023 - Podcasts

Why America's public school enrollment is down

During the pandemic, enrollment in public schools went down by more than a million students, according to the National Center for Education statistics. And as we approach three years since the start of the pandemic, schools across the country are still struggling to keep students.

  • Plus, major incentives for schools to make their bus fleets electric.
  • And, Brazil's Jan. 6 moment.

Guests: Axios' Erica Pandey and Joann Muller.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, January 9th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: Brazil’s January 6th moment. Plus: major incentives for schools to make their bus fleets electric. But first, why public school enrollment is way down in America. That’s today’s One Big Thing.

NIALA: During the pandemic enrollment in public schools went down by more than a million students. That's according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And as we approach three years since the start of the pandemic, public schools across the country are still struggling to keep students and fewer students means less funding, which is forcing some schools to shut down. Axios’ Erica Pandy has been covering this story. Hey Erica.


NIALA: So I think the obvious first question is if students are leaving public schools, where are they going?

ERICA: So they're going to private schools, they're going to charter schools, and the homeschooling population of students in the U.S. has actually doubled during the pandemic from around 2.5 million to around 5 million.

NIALA: And why are parents saying that they are taking their kids out of the public school system and moving them to private, charter and homeschool?

ERICA: So a lot of the parents that are doing this are kind of frustrated by how schools, which are subject to the guidelines in their cities and their states, have been flip flopping. It's not so much anymore, but kind of the damage is done already, right? They've been flip flopping on in-person and virtual learning, and that means that, you know, you've got a lot of kids who didn't have great years, didn't have a great couple of years, you've got kids at home, parents want them to be in schools, and a lot of them just got frustrated and pulled their kids out. And then if you look at private schools, their rates of virtual learning were a lot lower throughout the pandemic than public schools. And of course, homeschooling is its own issue. And you know, it all comes down to the fact that school boards were some of the most political places throughout the pandemic.

NIALA: And can you explain the financial impact of what decreased enrollment means for public school districts?

ERICA: So it's really simple.as students go, funding goes. And so schools that have less funding, have less resources are not gonna be as good of schools for the students who can't afford to go to private schools or don't have parents who could homeschool them or can't go to a charter school. And that tends to be typically lower income students living in cities.The Wall Street Journal had a great stat on this ,“enrollment fell in roughly 85 of the nation's largest 100 public school districts.” And I think about New York City, the largest school district in the country, which had an 8.3% enrollment drop from 2020 to 2022. So, you know, nationwide, public schools have lost about a million students, but it's a lot more dire in some areas.

And in a lot of different areas, this has been kind of an ongoing trend, not parents getting frustrated, but school populations shrinking because of declining birth rates. I mean, take New Hampshire for example, in the years before the pandemic, 2009 to 2020. So right up to the beginning of the pandemic, public school enrollment in New Hampshire went down by 14%, but then you had other states like Texas, which you know, has high rates of immigration that saw enrollment go up by 11% in the last, you know, pre-pandemic 10 years. Experts are projecting that in these next 10 years, enrollment is gonna go down pretty much everywhere. That the parent frustration is kind of gonna outweigh any rise in enrollment we'd see from immigration or growing populations.

NIALA: So what are public school districts doing about this?

ERICA: Yeah, they just don't really have a lot of options, Niala. So one option is to just close schools. Jefferson County, Colorado, which is outside Denver, voted in November to close 16 schools, that’s according to The Wall Street Journal. Oakland, California last February voted to close seven schools. A lot of these districts have been dealing with enrollment falling for decades now. But, when you don't have students and you don't have teachers and you don't have resources, and public schools don't really have a lot of advocates, you just kind of have to shutter.

NIALA: Erica Pandey reads the Axios Finish Line Newsletter. Thanks Erica.

ERICA: Thanks, Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: America’s school buses are going electric.


Major incentives for schools to make their bus fleets electric

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

While many school districts struggle with enrollment, many are also modernizing their school bus fleets – switching to electric school buses, instead of the traditional diesel. Federal and state governments are practically giving electric buses away to school districts, with a number of new incentives, says Axios’ Transportation Correspondent Joann Muller – hey Joann.


NIALA: So what does the cost breakdown look like when we're talking about electric school buses?

JOANN: Well, electric school buses cost about three or four times what a traditional diesel bus cost and that's why most school districts can't afford them. Even though they're cleaner, they're better for kids and you know, long term they'll save money on them. But most school districts just don't have the upfront money to buy one.

NIALA: And so with this idea of more government incentives to help districts buy these buses, how is that working?

JOANN: Well, there are multiple programs right now that Congress has put in place through various funding programs since the pandemic. And what we're seeing is the biggest one came through the infrastructure bill last year. $5 billion over five years for the Clean School Bus program, and the idea is that the EPA will dole out up to $375,000 to replace a diesel bus with an electric one, and that's almost the full cost of a bus. But on top of that, there are tons of other incentives to the point where the math is a no-brainer. Your school district should be getting in line to get some of these free school buses.

NIALA: So where are we seeing school districts already implement this?

JOANN: Well, Modesto, California is probably ahead of most they've committed to go electric. We are seeing some districts in Virginia that were at the forefront of this, but really a lot of communities have been dabbling in this one bus here or there.

NIALA: So why are diesel school buses bad? And what else makes these electric school buses attractive to districts?

JOANN: Well, if you think about it, the exhaust from diesel school buses is really terrible. It makes kids sick, especially, you know, if they have, are prone to asthma. They've also found evidence that it actually slows your cognitive development. So breathing in all that exhaust is terrible. Plus it's not good for the environment, of course, it contributes to greenhouse gasses that cause climate change. On the other hand, electric school buses are actually obviously cleaner, but they're also cheaper to operate because electricity costs less than diesel fuel, according to school bus manufacturers.

And, the last thing is, and many people don't think about this, that school buses only drive certain times of the day in the morning and again in the afternoon the rest of the time they're parked. And you can think of them as a giant storage battery where they can store surplus energy. And then in times of the day when the utility is seeing peak demand from the community, they can actually draw energy out of those buses and the school district can make a little money selling that energy back.

NIALA: Joann Muller is Axios’ Transportation Correspondent. Thanks Joann.

JOANN: Thank you, Niala.

Brazil’s Jan. 6 moment

NIALA: Before we go - a few more stories we’re watching today.

After 15 rounds of votes, Kevin McCarthy was finally elected Speaker of the House around 1 a.m. Saturday morning.

If you recall - it was also in the early hours on January 7, 2021 that Congress certified the 2020 election after being interrupted by the January 6th insurrection.

Speaking of January 6th - Brazilian rioters who believe false claims that their most recent presidential election was rigged stormed the country’s Congress, Presidential Offices and Supreme Court yesterday.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva beat Jair Bolsonaro by a close margin of less than 2% in October - the closest election in Brazilian history. On Sunday, he blamed stolen election rhetoric by Bolsonaro - who has been staying in Orlando.

President Biden told reporters after visiting our southern border in Texas yesterday that the situation in Brazil was “outrageous.” He tweeted last night that the will of the Brazilian people must be supported.

Biden is in Mexico today for the North American Leaders' Summit with Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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