Families Are Fleeing Government-Run Schools
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-on
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