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Policymakers should take note of changing school enrollment patterns

Written by Derek Monson

December 2, 2022

When my daughter’s public school shut down and went fully remote in spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I scrambled to make her schooling work. Like many families, we found the remainder of that school year was not the most conducive to learning.

She was fully remote again for the 2020-21 school year. Having had a taste of what remote learning required of us, we made adjustments that improved her learning outcomes to the point that she excelled in many ways while rather enjoying the experience. But the demands of time, energy and structure required to maintain a good home learning environment remained a struggle for our family.

In the 2021-22 school year, we gave the remote learning that our daughter was enjoying one more try through enrolling her in a district remote learning program designed for home-school families, in which she excelled. But with the continued toll on our family – and our daughter’s evolving desires for her own education – for the current school year we enrolled her in a hybrid (part remote, part in person) public charter school program as a transition back toward full-time, in-person instruction. Our goal is to enroll her in a private school that we think will be a good fit for her in the 2023-24 school year.

According to new research from scholars at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) on public school enrollment during the pandemic, my family’s long and winding educational journey is a microcosm of what has happened to enrollment in public schools generally across the nation. If American education policy is to reflect the expressed desires of Americans, policymakers will need to take careful note of these changing enrollment trends among families of school-age children.

Millions of families whose lives were thrown into upheaval by the decisions of public school districts to shift to mandatory remote learning due to concerns about COVID – some for several years in a row – chose to remove their children from district schools and instead enroll them in public charter schools, private schools or home school. Specifically, the AEI scholars report that their research suggests school districts that leaned the most on remote learning lost 600,000 more students than the school districts that relied the most on in-person instruction, despite concerns about COVID-19. 

The results from the AEI research align with the current status of private schools, public charter schools and home schools, as reported by Sutherland Institute education policy fellow Christine Fairbanks. 

Regarding private school enrollment trends, Fairbanks writes: 

As with many areas of life, the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot in education, including private school enrollment. While national data on private school is limited, one recent national survey showed the impact of the pandemic on private schools, revealing a general trend of increasing enrollment. Private schools were more likely to open their schools for in-person instruction than other schools, and many families chose to transfer possibly for this reason.

About public charter school enrollment, she observes: 

Overall, public charter school growth continues to increase (though growth slowed after the 2015-16 school year). Unsurprisingly, the first year of the pandemic resulted in charter school growth rate being the highest since 2015-16. 

At this point, public charter schools serve more students in cities than in rural locations. Additionally, a higher percentage of charter schools have student bodies that are more than 50% Black or 50% Hispanic than their traditional district school counterparts, and a higher percentage of public charters than traditional district schools were high-poverty schools. In other words, a higher proportion of public charter schools are educating historically underserved students than typically occurs among district schools. 

And regarding home-school trends: 

Since the pandemic, the percentage of U.S. children being home-schooled nearly doubled from spring of 2020 (end of the 2019-20 school year) to fall of 2020 (beginning of the 2020-21 school year) – from 5.4% to 11.1% of households with school-age children.  

While most people picture home-schoolers as conservative, middle-class, white, religious families, there has been a notable increase in home-schooling among other demographics as well. One scholar notes that there is growth among those “not on either political extreme.”  

The percentage of Black families choosing to home-school has increased significantly – rising from 3% to 16% from spring 2020 to fall 2020. Possible reasons for the increase include families feeling that the schools were not meeting their academic, cultural or physical safety needs. Some parents who viewed the classroom environment during the pandemic wanted to get their children away from treatment that they saw as biased. 

The story is similar for Hispanic families, although the increase in Hispanic families is not as dramatic as that of Black families. The proportion of Hispanic home-school families jumped from 3.5% in 2016 to 8.9% in 2022.

There has also been a surge in home schooling among parents of students with special needs, both for academic and safety reasons. 

Interestingly, the growth in the number of Black and Hispanic families choosing to home-school is similarly reflected in national trends in public charter school enrollment. A recent analysis of public charter school enrollment published by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) reports that enrollment in public charter schools nationwide increased among all kinds of students, with “particularly high enrollment gains for Hispanic students.” The report also states that “Charter school enrollment growth, both overall and for White, Black, and Hispanic students, is outpacing school-aged (ages 5 to 17) population growth in most states.”

As my Sutherland colleague has documented, and as recent research from multiple sources confirms, many families’ school enrollment choices are changing. The NAPCS report cites a survey that found “nearly 20% of families switched the type of school their child attended from March 2020 to May 2022.” These are noteworthy trends for education policy.

If policymakers are going to represent and support the expressed desires and decisions of voters, they are going to have to embrace an education pluralism approach or, as Fairbanks describes it, “a policy environment that supports high-quality schools as varied as the people, values, needs and philosophies that exist in society, and it ensures that students have reasonable access to that variety of options.”

It is time to move beyond ideological commitments to one particular type of school or another – all of them are needed if the goal is truly to educate children to become future leaders, problem-solvers and responsible citizens in American democracy.

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