Declining enrollment has revived discussions on education reform
The numbers tell a disturbing story.
For the second year in a row, schooling is down. While there isn’t a single set of universal metrics that can accurately capture the exact number of students enrolled across the country, reports of this are cause for concern. An NPR investigation compiled data from over 600 districts across the country to paint a picture of the changing student landscape, and the results are striking. Many districts, including some of the largest in the country, are reporting their second year of declining students.
At the individual level, district by district, this trend is not always worrying. Students will always enter and leave school systems at somewhat uneven rates, meaning that a year with a high graduation-to-enrollment ratio can experience a similar drop. Nationally, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this information is sobering, however.
While there is no universal agreement on what is causing the decline in student enrollment, these changes have only amplified a multi-year call for student reform. education. Education advocates on both sides of the political aisle have for years called for an overhaul of America’s education system. The call for accessible and equitable education is therefore a truly bipartisan issue.
We’ve written before about how changes like distance learning and social distance school schedules can create barriers to education that disproportionately affect low-income students. Many education experts will emphasize that the pandemic did not suddenly create these disparities, it simply widened the loopholes in the educational opportunities that were already there.
As we’ll see in a moment, these enrollment declines are not evenly distributed. This means that they affect certain demographics of groups more than they affect others. These changes in enrollment also look somewhat different (and paint different pictures) if you further distinguish between public school enrollment and charter school enrollment, two metrics that shed light on different angles of this complex issue.
This is what the problem looks like from a public school perspective.
The largest declines in student enrollment were seen in public school enrollment, particularly in early childhood care. While the idea of ââskipping kindergarten may not seem as critical as missing a year at a higher level, education advocates are quick to point out that ANY missed years of schooling can quickly turn into multi-year problems. .
While there isn’t a single academically identified source for this decline, public school officials have noted an increase in home schooling, as well as a shift towards private and charter schools. What worries these officials the most, however, is the potentially large number of children “fallen through the cracks” who have lost access to a coherent education without potential replacement.
For context, three of the nation’s largest public school districts – public schools in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – all saw declines of more than 25,000 students each. With New York, in particular, with a huge decline of 51,000 students. Parent advocacy groups cite issues such as downsizing of teaching staff, challenges of distance learning, and lack of peer interaction as their biggest concerns regarding student life. And it looks like those concerns could very well translate into lower numbers.
Here’s what it looks like from a charter (and private) school perspective
The image is slightly different when viewed from another angle. While private and charter school enrollment declined in 2020, it has since rebounded in a way that public school enrollment has not. Compared to NPR, enrollment in charter schools increased by approximately 7%, while private schools have seen net growth of 1.7% over the last two years.
In terms of raw numbers, this is the biggest period of growth reported for charter schools in a single year. For many parents, character schools represent the answer to a variety of different shortcomings in the public school system that have been potentially exacerbated in the wake of the pandemic. However, it should be noted that charter schools are not simply a “solution” to the declining confidence in public schools, at least not to their current capacity.
As charter schools navigate a different funding process than public schools, they may be slower to increase class sizes and teaching staff in response to increased enrollment. Depending on the district, public schools may be mandated to accept all pupil, even if this leads to an increase in class sizes. Conversely, charter and private schools can cap enrollment. It is important to note that the decline in public school attendance cannot simply be explained by a shift towards these schools; the number of new students in these categories is much lower than the overall evolution of enrollments.
Here is what is done
The push for educational reform has two parts: a commitment to classroom resources for students in public schools and better access to private and private schools for those students who will benefit from them.
The first occurred during school board elections with an unusually high level of community participation. The run-up to Election Day in 2021 saw an increase in national spotlight on school board elections, and the volume of that conversation is unlikely to die out anytime soon. Many local political parties have expanded their platforms to include school board races, even though these campaigns were previously viewed as non-partisan. While it’s too early to predict how exactly that will play out in the 2022 election season, political movements are sure to join in on this.
Meanwhile, the pressure to enroll vulnerable students in schools that better meet their needs has taken various forms across the country. For example, ACE scholarships is a nationally recognized organization that aims to provide low-income students with the funding they need to continue their education in schools that would otherwise be prohibitive. It’s hard to argue with the results of programs like ACEâAn organization that has awarded nearly 50,000 scholarships with a 90% graduation rate. While a number like this may seem small compared to the massive declines in student enrollment listed above, it is worth remembering that each of these people is a real, living student with real needs and real needs. Goals.
Any change is useful and results like those from ACE are encouraging to signal a larger change in the discussion.
Ultimately, this change in enrollment is an ongoing story. The data reported here only represents a snapshot of the landscape at this point, and it is likely that these trends, and subsequent calls for educational reform, will continue into the next year. While these numbers (and the calculations behind them) are larger hypothetical trends, one thing is not at all hypothetical: that students deserve an education that is accessible, equitable, and accommodating.