Here's What You Need to Remember: Obviously, many of these children shifted to home schooling, learning pods, or all those private schools which miraculously found a way to safely stay open last year, even as public schools in places like San Francisco and New York City remained shuttered month after month.
People have a habit of saying one thing and then doing another. Social scientists use fancy terms like “expressed preferences” versus “revealed preferences” when dealing with this state of affairs. Well, the data on public school enrollment are coming out, and while survey respondents express that they’re generally satisfied with how public schools responded to the pandemic, the enrollment numbers reveal a very different story.
Earlier this summer, the National Center for Education Statistics published K-12 enrollment data for the 2020–21 school year, which showed a drop of 3 percent compared with 2019–20. Given total K–12 enrollment of about 51 million students, that equates to a drop of 1.5 million children. The numbers for young children were particularly large, with kindergarten and pre-K enrollment dropping by a staggering 13 percent last year. Such figures are unprecedented; public school enrollment has grown almost every year during the 21st century, with any declines coming in well under one percent.
Obviously, many of these children shifted to home schooling, learning pods, or all those private schools which miraculously found a way to safely stay open last year, even as public schools in places like San Francisco and New York City remained shuttered month after month.
But a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools makes clear that there was not a uniform flight from public schools last year — enrollment in public charter schools actually surged by 7 percent, or almost a quarter-million students, during 2020-21. (For any reader confused by the reference to “public charter schools,” it’s worth emphasizing that, legally and operationally, all charter schools are public schools.)
All of this raises questions about the $200 billion or so that has been showered upon schools via federal COVID-19 aid bills, especially when most of these dollars won’t be spent until 2022 or later. It should also call into question the necessity of the extraordinary funding increases that the Biden administration has proposed for traditional district schools, at the same time the administration is seeking to restrict aid to private schools and that Congressional Democrats are attacking charter schools.
This past year, a million or more families have revealed that they’d prefer to move their children out of traditional public schools. Given the unprecedented nature of this shift, public officials would do well to take this phenomenon very, very seriously. Perhaps it’s no wonder that 2021 has thus far been the “year of school choice.”
Frederick M. Hess is the director of the Education Policy Studies program at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published by the American Enterprise Institute.