Where did all the public school students go?

More than 1.2 million students left the public system in a COVID-fueled diaspora. A new report examines where they went and why.

In Where Kids Went, Thomas S. Dee, an economist and professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education, suggests many factors contributed to the decline of public-school enrollment, not least dissatisfaction with public schools, including the ineffectiveness of remote learning, politicized curricula, or intransigent teachers’ unions.

“We saw an historically unprecedented exodus from public schools during the pandemic, especially among students at the kindergarten and early grade levels,” said Dee. “We’ve begun to see the financial pressure this is putting on many districts, with discussions about closing under-enrolled schools and possibly laying off teachers.

“But there hasn’t been much focus on where these students went and what kind of learning environments they were experiencing.”

The research revealed private school growth accounted for 14% of public-school decline. The growth was largest in kindergarten and early elementary, the grades which experienced the most decline in public schools.  

However, homeschools attracted even more public school students. For every one student who left the public system for a private school, nearly two switched to homeschooling.  

Homeschooling continued growing during the second full year of the pandemic – after most schools returned in-person – indicating that remote learning wasn’t the only factor causing families to make the switch.  

“We saw a run-up in homeschooling in the fall of 2020, which wasn’t surprising when you think about where we were then, when a lot of schooling was remote,” Dee said. “But I was surprised by both the magnitude and how enduring that initial run-up was.”  

However, the private and homeschooling numbers alone do not account for the entire enrollment decline. 

Another factor is the “historically low growth in the overall population,” leading to a decline in school-age population in many states. The decline was sharpest in the northeast and on the west coast.  

Dee also suggests factors like increased truancy and unregistered homeschooling also made an impact. And although not all states allow it, data suggests more young children skipped kindergarten during the pandemic.  

Whatever the reason, public schools nationwide are being forced to consolidate or close schools due to low enrollment or multi-million dollar budget deficits, while private and Christian schools continue to experience unprecedented growth.