Where exactly did the 1.2 million students who left the public school system go during the COVID-19 pandemic? Until now, data on this topic has been hazy at best, but a new Urban Institute essay by Stanford University’s Thomas S. Dee featuring data from the Associated Press and data journalists at Stanford University’s Big Local News provides a snapshot of where approximately 58% of the 1.2 million students who left public schools went. Dee reviews K-12 enrollment changes by sector from 21 states, plus Washington, D.C., between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years.
In the 21 states examined, public K-12 enrollment declined in every state except for three states and the District of Columbia. The AP and Stanford found that public K-12 enrollment dropped by approximately 711,000 students in those locations. California and New York experienced massive enrollment declines, with nearly 271,000 and 133,000 students leaving public schools.
By contrast, K-12 enrollments increased in other schooling sectors. Homeschool enrollment grew by about 184,000 during the pandemic, as likely would’ve been expected, with the homeschooling sectors in Florida and New York growing the most.
Private school enrollments also grew, but more modestly, increasing by nearly 103,000. Florida, again, and Tennessee experienced the most significant growth in their private schools.
Yet, the private and homeschool sector growth only accounted for about 40% of public school enrollment losses. Dee estimated that population changes, such as students moving to other states and declining birth rates, accounted for more than a quarter of public school enrollment losses.
At the same time, the report estimated that 240,133 students remain unaccounted for. These unexplained losses featured most prominently in California and New York, where nearly 152,000 and 60,000 students remain missing, respectively.
Some absences are likely due to unregistered homeschooling and families not enrolling their children in kindergarten, which is optional in nine of the 21 reviewed states. In these cases, Dee estimated that skipping kindergarten accounted for almost 40% of unexplained absences.
Nonetheless, some students have not attended school for multiple years now. Researchers have previously estimated that the lifetime earnings of students who experienced just one year of learning loss could be reduced by more than 9%, so there will be long-term concerns about many of these students and their futures.
These public school enrollment declines have also hastened financial crises for many school districts that were unprepared for them, especially urban ones. For instance, Minneapolis Public Schools announced an impending fiscal crisis due to declining enrollment last fall.
With fewer students in public schools and an increasing number of families more comfortable with switching schools, public school districts will need to up their game as they navigate a more competitive education marketplace. Research shows that school districts can positively respond to competitive pressures by implementing measures like open enrollment.
Policymakers should weaken school district monopolies, so students have options outside of their residentially-assigned schools. Oftentimes students drop out of school because of bullying by other students, not feeling like they fit in with classmates, not getting the academic attention they need, or conflicts with teaching staff. Policies, such as education savings accounts and open enrollment, provide students with flexible schooling options to transfer to schools that fit their needs. Education savings accounts, in particular, allow for significant educational customization, paying for tuition, books, physical therapy, transportation, and much more.
From the states
State policymakers continue to advance school choice proposals nationwide.
In Idaho, the Senate Education Committee passed a proposal (S.B. 1038) that would establish approximately 6,600 education savings accounts. These accounts could be used to pay for various approved education expenses, such as private school tuition or textbooks. There are no income restrictions on the accounts.
The Arkansas Senate passed Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ LEARNS Act (S.B. 294), which would initially establish education savings accounts for students who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities, or are assigned to failing public schools. However, student eligibility would expand by 2026 to all K-12 students. At the same time, the proposal would also remove any caps on charter schools and student transfers through open enrollment. Currently, the bill has 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 55 cosponsors in the House, providing a supermajority and majority, respectively.
What to watch
South Carolina policymakers are thinking about expanding open enrollment. Proposals in the South Carolina House and Senate would expand public school choice, allowing students to transfer to public schools other than their assigned ones. Currently, some public school districts in the Palmetto State permit students to participate in within-district open enrollment, but the new proposal would require all school districts to participate in cross- and within-district open enrollment. During his testimony, Reason Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Christian Barnard recommended adding transparency provisions to strengthen the proposal.
Texas governor’s State of the State address calls for school choice reforms. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called K-12 education an “emergency item” this legislative session. Noting that Texas successfully implemented education savings accounts (ESAs) for students with special needs during the pandemic, Gov. Abbott stated that Texas now needs to establish universal state-funded ESAs for all Texas families.
A Poor Poverty Measure
Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel, and Eric Parsons at Education Next
“While it has been understood for some time that school lunch enrollment as a poverty indicator is blunt and prone to error, the magnitude of the problem has not yet been fully appreciated. In exploring the rules, features, and processes of the National School Lunch Program, we find that the program’s design, incentives, and lack of income-verification enforcement likely contribute to the oversubscription.”
“The audit by an independent California agency largely focused on a questionable $7.3 million contract paid for with pandemic relief funds. In 2021, former officials appeared to ram through the purchase of 2,200 ultraviolet air filters designed to kill COVID despite multiple warnings that they weren’t following laws and procedures, the report said.”
The Stakes Are Only Getting Higher For Pandemic School Aid Spending
Marguerite Roza at Forbes
“Districts need to plan now so students don’t face chaos at the start of the 2024 school year with classrooms and teachers shuffled, programs abruptly dropped, demoralized staff, and leaders focusing on nothing but budget woes. Past experience tells us that deep cuts are often inequitable and impact our neediest students the hardest.”
Are you a state or local policymaker interested in education reform? Reason Foundation’s Education Policy team can help you make sense of complex school finance data and discuss innovative reform options that expand students’ educational opportunities. Please reach out to me directly at email@example.com for more information.