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Are parents giving up on public schools?

Throwing more money at the problem won’t stop the exodus


Parents and students protest public school mask mandates in front of the Montana Capitol in Helena last fall. Associated Press/Photo by Iris Samuels (file)

Are parents giving up on public schools?
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New enrollment data shows that 1.2 million students have left public schools since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This “seismic hit” to public education could reshape American schooling for years to come, ideally in a way that encourages more innovation and parental choice to finally improve student outcomes.

According to data from the Return to Learn Tracker, a key driver of declining enrollment was remote instruction and mask policies. Between 2020 and 2022, the school districts most committed to remote teaching lost 4.4 percent of their students, or 1 out of every 22 students. The enrollment loss for districts that had students meeting in person was four times smaller. (Similar patterns occurred for districts with “high mask usage” compared to “low mask usage.”)

The most significant enrollment declines occurred for kindergarten and elementary students, who were the most significantly affected (academically and emotionally) by the requirements for remote learning. Perhaps educators shouldn’t have been so quick to criticize former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in the summer of 2020 when she argued that kids should be in school. For much of the 2021-2022 academic year, some public school teachers unions continued to push for remote learning, even as most parents, politicians, and public health experts changed their policies.

Even once students returned to school, a similar conflict arose over masking children, a policy many European countries never recommended and public health experts actively questioned. Many states and public school districts retained mask mandates (and threatened to remove certification for private schools that didn’t follow them) until they were forced to change course after outcry (or lawsuits) from parents.

Remote learning provided parents a unique opportunity to see the educational process in action and highlighted other concerns that have driven thousands of families away from the public school system.

Over time, the specific frustrations from these pandemic decisions will fade, but this new level of parental involvement in schools will not. Remote learning provided parents a unique opportunity to see the educational process in action and highlighted other concerns that have driven thousands of families away from the public school system. Many parents want their children to learn math, science, and reading so they can be successful and productive members of society. They don’t want teachers to encourage their kindergartener to question his gender identity or tell their third grader she was “born racist.”

All of these issues caused many parents to seek out alternative school options. Charter school enrollment surged during the pandemic, as did the demand for private Protestant and Catholic schools. Homeschooling and hybrid options also became increasingly popular, and parents are exploring ways to combine learning at home with “more-formal learning contexts, whether they be online experiences, neighborhood pods, cooperatives, or joint undertakings with public and private schools.”

The response by teachers unions to these trends has followed the standard script. They lobby politicians and ask for more money. But the sad reality is that we have already increased funding for public education with little to show for it. Average inflation-adjusted spending per K–12 student roughly tripled between 1972 and 2012, while average reading, math, and science scores stagnated. One reason may be because much of the cost growth has been increases in administrative staff and more generous benefits for retired teachers.

“In truth, the U.S. spends more than $700 billion on K–12 education a year, or about $14,000 per student,” argues Frederick Hess, senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s 39 percent more than the average [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] nation. And many big-city districts spend considerably more, with per-pupil outlays of more than $20,000 per year in places such as Washington, D.C., and Boston.”

What many American parents realize is that more money won’t solve the problem of public schooling. As parents look elsewhere for quality education for their children (and their tax dollars follow them), public schools may soon face significant financial constraints. Rather than trying to pass laws that prohibit parents from leaving, public schools should take this opportunity to reimagine the entire system in a way that finally leads to lasting improvements in student success. Given the ideology driving most public school systems, that’s not likely to happen.


Daniel Huizinga

Daniel Huizinga is a strategy consultant, a speaker on personal finance, and CFO of a nonprofit supporting community development in Kenya. He has published more than 200 articles on business, financial literacy, public policy, and education.


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