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Closing classrooms may cost school districts thousands of students for years to come

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In the spring, many families were willing to give schools the benefit of the doubt as they adjusted to distance-learning programs, but it looks like time has run out on that goodwill. Part of the frustration is tied to students’ learning losses in key subjects such as math. Even more significant, perhaps, are concerns about mental health and child care.

Fewer parents are now “completely satisfied” with their children’s education; their number fell by 10 percentage points since last year, according to a Gallup poll. Parents across the country have expressed their dissatisfaction by voting with their feet: States from Colorado to Georgia have experienced substantial declines in public school enrollment.

How well do officials’ decisions to keep schools closed explain these enrollment declines? One recent study in Wisconsin attempted to find out. Using data from the more than 400 school districts in the state, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty found that districts that went fully virtual saw a 3 percent decline in enrollment, on average, once other factors were accounted for.

Many students who left public schools enrolled in the state’s private school choice programs, where a significant number of schools maintained in-person instruction even as traditional public schools shut down. The biggest enrollment declines occurred in the grade levels that have the most difficult time with virtual learning — kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

It appears, though, that it was not just a desire for in-person instruction that drove many parents to leave traditional public schools. They also looked for schools that did a better job at offering virtual instruction, since not all school districts saw a decline in enrollment. Those that had a history of running a virtual charter school before the pandemic hit saw a 4.7 percent increase in enrollment.

In nearby Michigan, parents rewarded experienced virtual school operators even more. Virtual charters there have grown their student rolls by more than one-third, as families have sought high-quality programs. The flight to quality was so significant that some of these cyber schools were forced to stop accepting new students, having reached the caps prescribed in their charters. Despite the enrollment surge, the virtual charter sector remains relatively small, serving less than 2 percent of public school pupils statewide.

Though many students left conventional public schools for a cyber school, more than 10 times that number moved out of the public education system altogether. That includes 13,000 fewer children starting kindergarten this year, and about 17,000 students whose parents informed local officials that they are homeschooling.

The shift to home-based education has been eye-opening in some states — increases of 36 percent in Mississippi, 62 percent in Montana and a whopping 96 percent in Alaska. Some polling suggests the number of homeschooled students nationwide may have doubled from the previous year.

Many parents, though, just want to return their children to an in-person classroom experience, a demand that has fallen on deaf ears in some places. The board of Ann Arbor Public Schools, Michigan’s fourth-largest school district, resisted the cries of many parents to reopen elementary classrooms. Enrollment in the district is down more than 3 percent from last year, and ongoing parental dissatisfaction may mean that more families will opt out next school year.

The Great Lakes State’s K-12 population has been on the decline for nearly 20 years, but no statewide drop has been as precipitous as the 4 percent drop that occurred between fall 2019 and fall 2020. Under special rules approved by the Michigan legislature for funding purposes, schools can count students as enrolled if they had just one remote interaction with a teacher during each of the four weeks of October. But even with this low expectation of student engagement in place, Flint’s troubled urban school district hemorrhaged one-sixth of its 2019 enrollment.

Districts serving students at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum also are not immune to student flight. Grosse Pointe Public Schools took a big enrollment hit among the families in its affluent community, but it still won’t accept choice transfers from neighboring Detroit.

The pandemic approach to education prompted many families nationwide to seek educational help outside their assigned schools. Prolonged delays in reopening classrooms may push away thousands of students for good.

Will Flanders is research director at the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Follow him on Twitter @WillFlandersWI.

Ben DeGrow is director of education policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @bendegrow.

Tags Charter school coronavirus restrictions Education School choice

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