THE COVID DIASPORA, PART 2.
Part 2: The New Student Economy
Public school enrollment has steadily risen since 2005, according to U.S. Department of Education tracking data. The steady annual increase has become the rule. This year is an exception. But it might become the rule. The pandemic has led to an increase in private school, charter school, and homeschool enrollment. As NPR reported on November 30 in a report titled, Virtual Charter Schools Are Booming, Despite A Checkered Reputation, fully virtual K-12 charter schools have experienced a pandemic-induced surge, even though some of them have checkered pasts for failing to live up to the hype and promise as advertised.
The fact that 2020 is an exception, in any sector, should come as no surprise since the pandemic has turned practically everything upside down. In California, however, projections from the California Department of Finance in a 2020 report titled, Declining Enrollment in California Schools Fiscal Challenges and Opportunities in the Coming Decade, showed that California's public schools had already entered a long period of declining enrollment. According to the report, by 2027–28, statewide enrollment is projected to fall nearly 7 percent (compared to 1.5% over the past decade).
Enrollment is projected to shrink in about half of all counties in California, and declines are expected in more of the state’s larger counties. The good news is that lower enrollment could result in funding increases since fewer students will increase per pupil funding under Proposition 98, assuming positive economic conditions exist.
Around the country, school districts are experiencing declines that have been attributed to families choosing the safest and/or most effective learning model for their children, seeking schools whenever possible with a track record of providing quality distance learning and alternative education programs. Families with kindergarten-age children have opted out of public schools at unprecedented rates ranging from 10-15% across the country. Instead, families chose charter schools, private schools, or child care centers with expanded services for kindergarteners. Or they just stayed home. Will kindergartners return to public schools post-COVID? Or will they join hundreds of thousands of other students migrating to alternative-to-public school settings as part of the COVID diaspora?
A number of factors will likely influence post-COVID school choices, among them family circumstances related to employment and job flexibility, the quality of the present-day learning experience, and the options made available by a student's district of residence.
As I have written in Part I, the pandemic has led to a surge in alternative education options, expanding the educational marketplace for consumers. People who would not have considered private schools, charter schools, homeschools, or virtual schools pre-COVID, have reconsidered due to necessity or for other reasons, including word-of-mouth from friends and families. For students who have thrived in an alternative settings of one type or another, the hybrid or blended schooling model provides the best of both worlds.
Of all of the alternative education settings that have grown, homeschooling is among the largest gainers as it is most responsible for driving enrollment declines in schools and districts across the country, according to an EdWeek Research Center report.
In response to the early rush to homeschooling on the heels of March, 2020 school closures, many districts built homeschool models in 2020-21 to accommodate their families and keep them enrolled. District-run virtual programs also keep students enrolled. The advantage of offering a variety of alternative education options is the ability to provide choice and meet the needs of more students. Homeschool programs that offer a blend of in-person and in-home instruction have been available for many years in communities with families who have opted for county-operated or private homeschool programs or to retain students committed to sports academies, acting or other specialized pursuits, specific learning challenges, or simply found the comprehensive school model not suitable for their children's needs.
The pandemic has eliminated or severely limited in-person instruction as an option in many public school districts. As a result, families have become savvy consumers of educational options and have chosen alternative education settings to meet their needs and the needs of their children. The question is whether or not families return to their public schools when their public schools return to them.