COVID-19 Didn't Break the Public School System. It Was Already Broken.

Families are leaving traditional schools in record numbers for pods, homeschooling, charters, and more.


We are witnessing an exodus from public schools that's unprecedented in modern U.S. history. Families are fleeing the traditional system and turning to homeschooling, virtual charters, microschools, and—more controversially—"pandemic pods," in which families band together to help small groups of kids learn at home.

The result has been an enormous backlash. A recent New York Times opinion article claimed that families forming pods is "the latest in school segregation." Denver Public Schools issued a formal statement in August urging parents not to unenroll their children—even though the district is not reopening its schools in person—because it is "deeply concerned about the pods' long-term negative implications for public education and social justice." Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia issued a similar statement the next day, pressuring families not to withdraw their children. Administrators were concerned about "pandemic flight" and worried that "an exodus of students" would cause schools to lose money.

The vast majority of students have been out of the classroom for nearly half a year because of the K-12 school closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Although it's technically back-to-school season, millions of children won't actually be returning to school buildings. About three-quarters of the nation's 100 largest public school districts decided not to reopen with any in-person options this fall, which has left families scrambling for alternatives.

We now have substantial data suggesting that the public school system will likely lose millions of students this school year. An August nationwide survey from Gallup suggests that the proportion of students enrolled in traditional public schools might drop by seven percentage points, with a random sample of 214 parents telling pollsters what type of education option they will choose for their oldest child this year—whether that be a public, charter, private, parochial, or homeschool option. Because around 50 million children were enrolled in public schools pre-pandemic, this finding implies that about 3.5 million students may leave the system.

While the direct cause of this wave of departures is the pandemic, the exodus didn't come out of nowhere. Many families simply realized the school system wasn't going to be there for them. Some expected the remote learning disaster from the spring to repeat itself. Others didn't like what they saw going on when they got a closer look at their child's curriculum at the end of last year. And being offered slightly less poorly choreographed Zoom lessons—or nothing at all—wasn't enough to keep the skeptics around. For many, COVID-19 was the final push they needed to leave a system that was already barely meeting their needs.

The education establishment is panicked, but there is little it can do to stem the flow once families determine to take matters into their own hands. What remains is the task of restructuring the underlying funding mechanisms to attach money to students instead of institutions, so that more families are empowered to escape a system that isn't working for them.

The Exodus

As COVID-19 started to spread domestically and schools began to close in the spring, many families struggled. But some discovered that they really liked homeschooling. The pandemic-induced test drive of home-based education gave millions of parents a chance to reassess the factory model. Some families reported that their children were less anxious, more engaged with learning materials, and learning more in a fraction of the time. Other families realized that they could actually make homeschooling work—and decided never to turn back.

In fact, national polling from EdChoice has found each month since March that families are growing more positive about homeschooling as a result of COVID-19. A survey from July found that 74 percent of parents reported having a more favorable view of homeschooling, whereas only 15 percent reported having a less favorable view.

A Google Trends search reveals that public interest in homeschooling reached a peak in mid-July, as it dawned on millions of families that their public schools weren't necessarily planning on reopening in person.

The August poll from Gallup estimated that the proportion of homeschoolers—defined as students who are not enrolled in a formal school—would double this school year. And a survey conducted in May and June by EdChoice found that 15 percent of families reported they were "very likely" to make the switch to homeschooling full-time this year.

Another national survey by Civis Analytics found that nearly 40 percent of families have disenrolled their children from the school they were supposed to attend because of reopening plans. Notably, this survey suggests that some of these changes could last. About 17 percent of the families who withdrew their children reported that they would not place their children back in the original school even after it's considered safe to do so.

These indications aren't limited to surveys. We also now have hard evidence of actual public school enrollment declines across the country. Arizona's largest school district reported a 5.6 percent decrease in enrollment from last year. Clark County, Nevada, reported a 3.4 percent drop. In Florida's Orange County, enrollment is down about 9 percent from projections. In Nashville, it's down 4.5 percent from projections. And as of August 28, over 3,000 students—about 1.6 percent of total enrollment—had filed to withdraw from Virginia's Fairfax County Public Schools and switch to homeschooling or a private school.

Each of the reported enrollment reductions has been larger for elementary students than for higher grade levels. The drop in Mesa Public Schools in Arizona is around 10 percent for elementary schools and 17 percent for kindergartens. The drop in Dallas Independent School District is about 8 percent for elementary schools. Each of these districts reporting enrollment reductions has announced that they do not plan to reopen with any in-person instruction.

Homeschool filings are also through the roof in many states. Nebraska reported a 21 percent increase from the same time last year. In Vermont the rise is 75 percent; in Wisconsin it's 128 percent. These spikes have been as large as 175 percent in the biggest school district in Utah, 229 percent in Maricopa County, Arizona, and 288 percent in the state of Texas. So many families filed to homeschool in North Carolina that they crashed the government website.

Pods and Microschools

Pods and microschools are a midway point between modern private schooling and homeschooling. "Microschool" is a broad term to describe groups of around five to 10 children together, often in a home, with a teacher or "guide" to facilitate learning. Many families are now applying the microschooling approach to the current situation and creating "pandemic pods." These groups allow families to pool resources to cover the costs of private tutors or just to share supervision responsibilities to make home-based education more efficient and affordable. Put differently, microschools and pandemic pods allow families to economize by outsourcing the process of homeschooling. Although many families forming pods are unenrolling their children from the public school system altogether, others are banding together to offset child care costs while their children receive instruction from their traditional public school teachers virtually. In states like Arizona, eligible families can even use a portion of their children's K-12 education dollars to cover the costs of microschools. One private Facebook group helping families form and find these pods has picked up 41,000 members since it started about a month before the beginning of the school year.

While some families are using pods to administer the virtual curriculums provided by the schools where their children are still enrolled, others have opted out entirely. This trend, perhaps more than any other, is what spooks the public education bureaucracy.

Given that the U.S. spends about $15,000 per public school student per year—and given that districts are partly funded based on enrollment counts—the departure of 3.5 million kids could drain up to $52 billion from the public school system.

The public school monopoly is afraid of this exodus—and for good reason. Arizona's Chandler Unified School District, for example, already estimated that its expected loss of 1,656 students would lead to a funding shortfall of around $21 million.

Denver Public Schools in August issued a statement noting that "the district loses approximately $10,600" for every student who withdraws. It urged families not only to "stay enrolled in your school!" but also to "reject the notion of school vouchers and stipends," arguing that allowing public dollars to follow children to the educational setting of their choice would "siphon funds from public education."

The reality is that the public school system siphons funds from families; school choice returns that funding to its rightful owners.

Private and Charter Schools

A nationally representative survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs found that private and charter schools adapted to the lockdown better than did district-run public schools. The survey found that private and charter school teachers were more than twice as likely to meet with students each day—and about 20 percent more likely to introduce new content to their students—than were teachers at traditional public schools. Parents of children in private and charter schools were also at least 50 percent more likely to report being "very satisfied" with the instruction provided during the lockdown than were parents of children in traditional public schools.

Special interests, hoping to protect their monopoly, have been fighting hard to prevent families from having access to these alternatives. Oregon's teachers union successfully lobbied to make it illegal for families to access virtual charter schools back in March. The Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators likewise pushed to block families from switching to virtual charter schools, and California passed a bill that prevented funding from following children to public charters. One charter school in the Golden State reported that the legislation forced it to put 500 already-admitted students back on the waitlist. The teachers union in Alaska opposed the state's move to partner with a virtual school that had been successfully providing remote education for decades.

A coalition of 10 teachers unions and the Democratic Socialists of America called for a ban on new charter schools and private school voucher programs, and the Los Angeles teachers union called for a ban on all charter schools.

Families are hitting other government-imposed roadblocks as well. Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland; Dane County, Wisconsin; Sacramento County, California; and Oregon have ordered private schools not to reopen in person, even though day care centers are permissible in each of those places. A private school in Sacramento rebranded as a day care, going so far as to retrain its teachers as child care workers, in an attempt to get around the regulation, but the county ordered it to close anyway.

Massachusetts now requires pandemic pods with more than five unrelated students to be licensed—and paying a private instructor is forbidden. New Mexico is currently under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice for unconstitutionally limiting private schools to 25 percent capacity while public schools are limited to 50 percent capacity and day cares are permitted to operate at 100 percent capacity.


Even now, the outflow of students could be staunched if schools reopened. But public schools, especially those in major cities, have been deeply resistant to in-person instruction. Eighty-five percent of the nation's 20 largest school districts decided not to offer any in-person instruction this fall. New York City's part-time in-person reopening plan was met with fierce opposition. Teachers groups poured into the streets to protest with props such as fake tombstones and body bags. Amid threats of a teacher strike, Mayor Bill de Blasio pushed back the reopening date to September 21. After more discussions with union officials, he further delayed the reopening of schools until September 29 for elementary schoolers and October 1 for the rest of the student body.

The American Federation of Teachers, which boasts 1.7 million members, threatened "safety strikes" over fall reopening plans. An Arizona school district had to cancel classes in August at the last minute because of a teacher "sick out" that left families out to dry. Families in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found out after 10 p.m. on a Sunday night that public schools weren't going to be there for students the next morning because 276 teachers called in absent at the last minute. And after pushback from the teachers union for voting to reopen schools in person, the Ft. Worth Independent School District board voted again, at around 3:30 a.m., to delay reopening for two more weeks.

The latest data suggest that these reopening decisions have more to do with union influence and politics than safety. Using Education Week's data on the reopening decisions of 835 public school districts, researcher Christos Makridis and I found that districts in places with stronger teachers unions are much less likely to be offering full-time in-person instruction this fall. Even after controlling for several county-level demographic variables, including age, gender, marital status, race, political affiliation, and household income, we found that a 10 percent increase in union power was associated with a 1.3 percentage point reduction in the probability of in-person reopening. In Florida, 79 percent of the 38 school districts included in the dataset are planning to offer full-time in-person instruction. In California, a state with much stronger teachers unions, only 4 percent of the school districts included in the dataset are planning to do the same.

We did not find evidence to suggest that reopening decisions were statistically related to health risk as measured by recent COVID-19 cases or deaths per capita in the county.

These results make sense. Stronger unions are in better positions to get the policies they want. And keeping public schools from reopening in person minimizes any safety risks for union members while keeping benefits for teachers, in terms of job security and wages, about the same.

Yet teachers aren't the only stakeholders in this debate. Reopening schools without any in-person instruction ignores the needs of families.

Some public school districts in Arizona, California, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Virginia, and Michigan have reopened otherwise-closed public school buildings as "day cares" and started charging families for the service—in addition to what they already pay in property taxes. But if public schools can reopen as day cares, why can't they reopen as schools?

The answer is that one group of workers is willing to supervise children in person while another group is refusing to do so. Day care workers are watching students at schools while teachers provide remote instruction from their homes. This may be a great deal for teachers, but families and taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick, since they now have to pay two people for the job of one.

Teachers unions also pushed to limit requirements for virtual instruction. In the spring, the Los Angeles teachers union struck a temporary deal with the district to require just four hours of work each day. Some public school districts even attempted to use language from the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as an excuse, in the name of equity, to not provide any virtual instruction to any students. These districts reasoned that they would be contributing to inequality if some students had better access to remote learning than others. Instead of stepping up to the challenge presented by the pandemic, they decided to shut down learning for all children.

In fact, an analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that only one in three school districts required teachers to deliver any instruction this spring—and less than half of districts expected teachers to take attendance or check in with students on a regular basis. A national survey conducted in August by Common Sense Media found that 59 percent of teens reported online learning was worse than in-person learning. Only 19 percent reported the opposite.

Although the five largest school districts in Massachusetts aren't reopening with any in-person instruction this fall, the state's teachers union successfully reduced the 180-day school year by 10 days for "planning purposes." And The New York Times has reported that "many teachers have expressed anxiety about how they and their homes would look on camera during live teaching."

At least one public school in Indiana in August even conducted a nonsensical "virtual fire drill" for students to participate in from home.

Fix the System

Families are getting a bad deal, and they know it. Hopefully, they're reevaluating the structure of K-12 education funding and realizing that there's no good reason to fund institutions instead of students. As with many other taxpayer-funded initiatives, from Pell Grants to food stamps, the money should go directly to students, and families should be able to use it on the provider of educational services that works best for their children.

This has always been obvious to supporters of educational freedom, but it's now becoming clear to others as well. Schools aren't even reopening, yet the system is still getting our children's education dollars. And in most cases, none of those dollars follow the child when they switch to a private school or homeschool. That doesn't make any sense.

Even if a school does reopen, families should still be able to take their child's education dollars elsewhere. The money should be for educating children—not protecting a government monopoly.

More and more families are starting to understand this. A national poll from August found a 10 percentage point jump in support for school choice (from 67 percent in April to 77 percent now) among parents with children in public schools.

Although educational freedom isn't the norm right now, there are at least five proposals that have been recently introduced in Congress—in addition to legislation in states such as North Carolina and Pennsylvania—that would allow more funding to follow children instead of institutions.

Families are waking up to the fact that they have been powerless when it comes to K-12 education for far too long. This realization is already pushing parents to unenroll their children from the public school system. It could also push them to demand their children's education dollars back from that system. In this sense, the public school monopoly's latest failure to meet the needs of millions of families just might be the straw that breaks its own back.