Education

Families are fleeing government-run schools

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This fall may be the biggest moment of truth for public education since the 1970s.

After seeing enrollment in government-run K-12 schools decline by 3 percent in COVID-marred 2020–21 (including 13 percent for kindergarten and pre-K), all while homeschooling tripled, the $122 billion question facing this new school year is whether that defection is an aberration or inflection point. Given the amount of time that families have now had to plan around school-opening policies that have been among the most cautious in the developed world, would they choose their neighborhood school, or seek alternative solutions with more predictable schedules?

An early bellwether came clanging in last week, suggesting that the mass opting-out will be no mere blip. “Sadly, since the onset of the pandemic, our school roster has declined by 120 students who have left our school,” Principal Elizabeth Garraway of Brooklyn’s P.S. 118 Maurice Sendak elementary school emailed to parents in affluent Park Slope. “Due to the drastic decline in our numbers, our budget to pay teacher salaries was drastically reduced.”

The school, in Brooklyn’s District 15 (where my daughters attend), has plummeted from 345 students in 2018–19 to a projected 225 this September, with kindergarten enrollment collapsing from 76 to 37. Because school funding is pegged to enrollment, that means four teachers had to be reassigned within the Department of Education (DOE), while four others found new jobs. (As per usual in personnel proceedings involving a strong public sector union, it’s the longest-tenured teachers who get to stay, and the freshest blood shown the door.)

“Unfortunately, losing a third of our student body population had very dire consequences for our community,” Garraway wrote.

Maurice Sendak is a successful, highly coveted school; the kind of place parents pay a real estate premium to get into. Until two years ago, public schools in brownstone and gentrifying areas of District 15 were experiencing long enrollment upswings, which ran concurrently with a citywide increase in public school “uptake” from around two-thirds of all resident children to three-quarters.

Those trend lines are now collapsing. The DOE serviced 43,000 fewer kids last year, a drop of more than 4 percent, while charter school enrollment increased by nearly 10,000 despite a state-enforced cap. The five-year numbers prior to this fall are even more dramatic—government-run schools are down more than 5 percent (including 18 percent for kindergarten), while charters are up 31 percent. “Half of all 32 New York City school districts have lost at least 10 percent of their enrollment these past five years,” noted the New York Post.

Enrollment for 2021–22 is still unknown (as far as I can tell, my local elementary still mistakenly believes my soon-to-be first-grader will be attending), but preliminary data from the spring indicated that the kindergarten population, far from bouncing back after a “redshirt” year, would continue to plunge: Applications were down 12 percent, after having declined 9 percent the year before.

Why are families leaving? Back in April I wrote that “it’s too early to say” whether reopening policies played a measurable (in addition to the observably anecdotal) role, but research since then has bolstered that case.

A joint Stanford Graduate School of Education/New York Times study of 70,000 public schools in 33 states three weeks ago showed that those offering remote-only learning at the beginning of 2020–21 experienced a 3.7 percent decline, while those with in-person schooling went down 2.6 percent. “In other words,” Stanford education professor Thomas S. Dee told the university’s publicity department, “going remote-only actually increased the enrollment decline by about 40 percent.”

New York City, despite being mistakenly held up by Democrats and teachers unions as a model for school reopening, rattled parents’ nerves all 2020–21 with repeated school-year delays, capricious shutdownshybrid scheduling, and hair-trigger building closures. Meanwhile, private schools, and public schools as close by as Long Island, remained open all year, without ever becoming “superspreaders.”

It makes intuitive sense that parents with means would seek both greater predictability and better educational outcomes for their kids, whether that means moving to a more reliable school district or shelling out the money for private options. Meanwhile, New York charter schools, which were about as physically shuttered as their government-run counterparts last year, are increasing their popularity in part because parents of lesser means disproportionately prefer having a remote-learning option.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday laid out the city’s COVID school policies, continuing to (accurately) stress as he has for the past half-year that remote and hybrid learning have been an educational catastrophe. But even while seeking to reassure parents that schools will be dependably open full time, hizzoner unveiled a system that will almost certainly produce widespread quarantining of elementary school students.

Unvaccinated kids (which is all of them in elementary schools) will be subject to semiregular testing—10 percent of the unvaxxed population every other week. If there is a positive case in a classroom, all the other unvaccinated kids have to quarantine for at least seven days. So what might that look like in practice?

Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the most extensive testing regime in the country (all students and staff, every week), currently has a 0.6 percent positive rate among students, or one out of every 167. At my daughters’ former elementary school, that would mean five kids. With class sizes at around 25 per, it doesn’t take long at all for whole swaths of a school to be isolated at home, while parents scramble for cover.

We made our decision to leave the public elementary school right as de Blasio started speaking in near-absolutist terms about getting buildings open five days a week. As the check-clearing deadline for private school approached, the calculation went mostly like this: Do we actually trust the New York system to devise rules that will keep classrooms reliably open? The answer, even in those pre–delta variant days, was hell no. Yesterday’s protocols confirmed that suspicion.

If the New York example plays out nationwide—and keep in mind, the 2020–21 K-12 decline happened absolutely everywhere—then the impact on public education, local and state governance, and politics itself could be profound. About one out of every five state-government dollars is spent on primary and secondary education. Spending formulas tied to enrollment will see major declines; those that aren’t will face political pressure from taxpayers rightly wondering why the bill is so high for a service fewer people want. The trend toward tethering education spending to students rather than school buildings will continue shooting upward.

All of which would be another reason to view 2020–21 to be the apex of teachers union power, to be followed by inexorable descent. They got their work-at-home carveouts, their school closures, their preferred party running the federal government, their vaccine fast-tracking, their fingerprints all over the “science,” and their hundreds of billions in federal largesse. And as a result of all that influence, they created a product that’s literally repellant to millions of parents, even at the cost of free. Their ranks will almost certainly thin.

“[American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten] seems blithely unaware that parents’ patience is not inexhaustible, and bizarrely determined to alienate her members’ most stalwart supporters: parents like those in Park Slope who pride themselves on being good progressives and public school parents,” wrote American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Robert Pondiscio this week. “I’m still of the mind that ‘new normal’ talk is overwrought, but I’m far less confident of that assertion than I was at the outset of the pandemic. The long-standing practice of sending kids to zoned neighborhood schools is still a hard habit to break. What I didn’t expect was how many public school supporters—from governors and teachers unions to local administrators and school boards—would be so determined to break it.”

Matt Welch is an editor at large at Reason. This article first appeared on Reason.com.

About Matt Welch

Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason. He served as Reason's editor in chief from 2008 to 2016.

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