Public schools

Families Are Fleeing Government-Run Schools

Brooklyn elementary loses one-third of its student population and eight teachers, as the first 2021–22 enrollment numbers straggle in.

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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-only learning at the beginning of 2020–21 experienced a 3.7 percent decline, while those with in-person schooling went down 2.6 percent. "In other words," Stanford education professor Thomas S. Dee told the university's publicity department, "going remote-only actually increased the enrollment decline by about 40 percent."

New York City, despite being mistakenly held up by Democrats and teachers unions as a model for school reopening, rattled parents' nerves all 2020–21 with repeated school-year delays, capricious shutdowns, hybrid scheduling, and hair-trigger building closures. Meanwhile, private schools, and public schools as close by as Long Island, remained open all year, without ever becoming "superspreaders."

It makes intuitive sense that parents with means would seek both greater predictability and better educational outcomes for their kids, whether that means moving to a more reliable school district or shelling out the money for private options. Meanwhile, New York charter schools, which were about as physically shuttered as their government-run counterparts last year, are increasing their popularity in part because parents of lesser means disproportionately prefer having a remote-learning option.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Thursday laid out the city's COVID school policies, continuing to (accurately) stress as he has for the past half-year that remote and hybrid learning have been an educational catastrophe. But even while seeking to reassure parents that schools will be dependably open full time, hizzoner unveiled a system that will almost certainly produce widespread quarantining of elementary school students.

Unvaccinated kids (which is all of them in elementary schools) will be subject to semiregular testing—10 percent of the unvaxxed population every other week. If there is a positive case in a classroom, all the other unvaccinated kids have to quarantine for at least seven days. So what might that look like in practice?

Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the most extensive testing regime in the country (all students and staff, every week), currently has a 0.6 percent positive rate among students, or one out of every 167. At my daughters' former elementary school, that would mean five kids. With class sizes at around 25 per, it doesn't take long at all for whole swaths of a school to be isolated at home, while parents scramble for cover.

We made our decision to leave the public elementary school right as de Blasio started speaking in near-absolutist terms about getting buildings open five days a week. As the check-clearing deadline for private school approached, the calculation went mostly like this: Do we actually trust the New York system to devise rules that will keep classrooms reliably open? The answer, even in those pre–delta variant days, was hell no. Yesterday's protocols confirmed that suspicion.

If the New York example plays out nationwide—and keep in mind, the 2020–21 K-12 decline happened absolutely everywhere—then the impact on public education, local and state governance, and politics itself could be profound. About one out of every five state-government dollars is spent on primary and secondary education. Spending formulas tied to enrollment will see major declines; those that aren't will face political pressure from taxpayers rightly wondering why the bill is so high for a service fewer people want. The trend toward tethering education spending to students rather than school buildings will continue shooting upward.

All of which would be another reason to view 2020–21 to be the apex of teachers union power, to be followed by inexorable descent. They got their work-at-home carveouts, their school closures, their preferred party running the federal government, their vaccine fast-tracking, their fingerprints all over the "science," and their hundreds of billions in federal largesse. And as a result of all that influence, they created a product that's literally repellant to millions of parents, even at the cost of free. Their ranks will almost certainly thin.

"[American Federation of Teachers Union President Randi Weingarten] seems blithely unaware that parents' patience is not inexhaustible, and bizarrely determined to alienate her members' most stalwart supporters: parents like those in Park Slope who pride themselves on being good progressives and public school parents," wrote American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Robert Pondiscio this week. "I'm still of the mind that 'new normal' talk is overwrought, but I'm far less confident of that assertion than I was at the outset of the pandemic. The long-standing practice of sending kids to zoned neighborhood schools is still a hard habit to break. What I didn't expect was how many public school supporters—from governors and teachers unions to local administrators and school boards—would be so determined to break it."

NEXT: The Number of 'Super Commuters' Explodes in America's Housing-Starved Metros

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  1. As a left-libertarian, I want as many children as possible to attend public schools — where they should receive mandatory critical race theory training.

    #RadicalIndividualistsForRacialCollectivism

    1. You forgot climate crisis training as well.

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      2. Climate crisis is up for discussion.
        Don’t want my grandkids being told that grandpa shouldn’t play golf or spend winters in Florida. Or, they will be bad citizens for inheriting my Florida condo.

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    3. This discussion on race better not make my grandkids feel guilty for being Irish Americans!!

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  2. Australia is building concentration camps.

    1. They want a monopoly on super spreader events.

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    2. And my whole life I thought they were rugged individualists who played with snakes, crocs, and stingrays for fun.

      1. Crikey, were you wrong. Better hide that gun and contrary opinion, mate.

    3. The citizens gave up their guns.

  3. The Census Bureau reported that between fall of 2019 and 2020, the number of children homeschooled in the US doubled.

    1. and the Census was taken in early 2020, before all the lockdowns in many states.

    2. That;’s very good news.

    3. Well maybe there is hope for some kids to receive actual education and learn critical thinking skills in the future…

  4. That’s 2/3 who are mighty tolerant.

    1. Probably more like 2/3rds who don’t think they have any other options.

  5. technology has destroyed the need for top-down government education. educate your children yourself. send them out into the world with real-world knowledge.

    1. refund the money to the taxpayers so they can afford better PCs and higher speed internet, to facilitate better virtual learning with qualified online instructors.

      1. Or tuition to a decent private school.

        1. Around 18k. So the deal on public schools is you pay into it no matter if you have kiddos there or not. That is a combination of local property tax, state and federal tax.

          You could give tax credits for tuition. Parochial schools often have donor money also but it is difficult to just give back the cost.

          When you do that. You give government control over a contractor system. Which is what you want to avoid to begin with.

  6. They got their work-at-home carveouts, their school closures, their preferred party running the federal government, their vaccine fast-tracking, their fingerprints all over the “science,” and their hundreds of billions in federal largesse.

    Lately it feels like this wish list isn’t that different from one the Reason staff might create.

  7. Build the wall! Build the wall!

    – teacher’s union

  8. Some parents are afraid to send their kids to school during the pandemic, because they might catch or spread COVID-19. Some parents are mad at the school for making kids wear masks or for other nonsensical pandemic rules. And some parents want to avoid the woke instruction they’ve heard is on the way.

    1. A, B, C, or D all of the above

      1. D, definitely D.

    2. Locally the public school district said masks are optional and some parents kept their children home. Then after one week the school district made masks mandatory, so those children returned to school and some other parents pulled their children out of the school.

      The private schools around here seem to follow what the public schools do in regards to covid related decisions.

  9. Surprised that no one was quoted proclaiming that home schooling is white supremacy. This is known.

  10. I’m not so sure that all this flap over the current plans for instruction have to do with how they’re teaching, I suspect some of it may have to do with what they’re teaching, but I suppose that’s an issue for another day.

  11. This is happening more often and it is somewhat encouraging. We have had a large amount of people leave for private / charters or districts that are better. The biggest 2 reasons have been:

    – COVID insanity. Teachers not wanting to show up, wanting another year of zoom classes. Wanting ANOTHER year of no students in school. Wanting masks at all times for all kids. It’s funny, the district that is more “in town” around us was closed most of last year, and is talking about shutting back down for this year. The private school and the one in the “better” district a county over? They were open all LAST year. Parents are fed up. There are lots of more affluent families that like their nice downtown adjacent homes, but are refusing to deal with the ridiculous dem run counties, so they are taking their kids (and money) elsewhere.

    – CRT and the issues stemming from it. A few friends that recently transferred from the blue, downtown county to the better district in the red county, were telling us about the stark difference in curriculum between the schools. Egregious stuff like no math or science tests until 4th grade. No correction of kids spelling problems, allowing them to write it out phonetically however they please, and not correcting them. Not counting punctuation or correcting it. The school’s reasons for this are right out of the CRT playbook. Focusing on tests and achievement is harder on minorities and BIPOC students. Harshly critiquing them on the correct english spelling can be considered offensive to children whose first language is not english, or who arent exposed to it as much; also it can be considered “colonialist”. Focus on test scores and grading math problems for the correct answer is disheartening to students of color who perform poorer on the tests. We have had our kid in the red school district (thank god) this whole time, but to find out this stuff was actually happening right down the road is crazy. Also, surprise surprise, that school gets crushed when it comes to any standardized testing, their kids are so far behind, and getting left further behind.

    One tiny glimmer of hope: parents around me are seeing this, and they are connecting the dots. The schools that are full on with the COVID hysterics, bending to the teachers union, holding the students back, not doing everything they can to get the kids back in school…they are all in areas that are straight-ticket-democrat, will always be and vote blue. And the people with kids who care about them getting an actual education, are getting the hell out.

    1. CRT is only teaching that there was slavery and some racisms and stuff. That removal of stuff like proficiency exams isn’t real. It came from a Fox News host.

      1. *sigh* There are quite legitimate reasons not to give high-stakes tests to students that have nothing to do with race or racism. In fact there is a vast literature on assessment and ways to do it that actually foster real learning rather than encouraging a “teaching to the test” or “cramming to pass the test” mindset.

        1. Yet the most consistently successful and intelligent people on the planet, are asians. Who happen to place a very high emphasis on tests, achievement, etc. Also Jews…who do the same.

          And in these districts that are de-emphasizing and removing tests, students are falling behind compared to their peers that are tested. Eventually there will be a time where they need to pass a test or know a concept. And they will be behind their counterpart who had to prove themselves.

          Feel free to send your children to these blue schools, and recommend them to all the affluent white-guilt liberals you encounter. I wont feel bad when their offspring are left in the dust because of the choices they made. They will probably be working a lower level position in the company my kid owns, so at least get them to show up to work on time, ya?

          1. So now racial stereotyping is okay? I wish you would get your story straight.

            Just do a Google search on mastery-based testing. There is a lot of work being done that represents an alternative to traditional high-stakes testing. Of course at some point along the way there does need to be some assessment of student knowledge. But when and how and how often should those tests be conducted?

            Why do you think persistent testing means better outcomes? Because of one very broad and overly generalized correlation? Perhaps your argument should have more rigor than that.

            1. Which is still testing. Reports are of school districts pushing CRT moving to NO TESTING. Not the same thing.

            2. Mollycoddled, educationally crippled, white guilt-liberals and woke dead ends of evolution are among my favorite culture war casualties.

              1. (Lol please rate the quality of my Kirkspeech if you find the time)

                1. 5 out of 7. needs moar throat references

                2. Lol. Solid.

          2. There is no such thing as an Asian race. There is no such thing as a Jewish race. There is no such thing as a black race. There is no such thing as a Latino race. None of those things are real.

            You tend to divide people up by ethnicity or some other arbitrary division.

            1. But there is a totes-for-sure white race, amirite?

            2. Im playing the game by the rules they are forcing on me, forgive me for playing into their overt racism

        2. And yet as we move further and further from the more rigorous approach of the past, we see an ever increasing number of people who grow up not knowing a damned thing, lacking in critical thinking skills, and unable to communicate with proper English grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.

          I’m called NEA bullshit.

          Ironically, those who espouse such things as racist are in fact being racist, because they are the ones claiming that minorities can’t learn them. This is utter nonsense – the way up is not by pulling everyone else down. Work to bring those who need extra because of social constraints up.

        3. Why do you insist on calling yourself a “Radical Individualist”? You are no such thing.

        4. Not a single country with advanced level of education has abolished testing, chemjeff. Not in Japan, Not in Korea, not anywhere in which properly educated Jr high students could run circles around American seniors.

          You can be an artist or an athlete with tremendous subjective talent that no single test can accurately gauge. But if you’re illiterate and fail basic math tests, your role in society will be limited. If you fail math tests because you think 1 + 4 =7, you need to start hitting the books.

          Tests should be enforced more on those who struggle academically. It’s common sense. What would you if you wanted to learn a foreign language? Sure, speaking the language in social settings and interacting with those who speak that language is more important than acing tests. Still, you won’t test the student’s basic knowledge on vocab, conjugation, etc?

          1. “some racisms and stuff” dead giveaway.

            1. I don’t believe in ‘sarcasm’ tags, because I’m old school… the jokes don’t come with a roadmap.

        1. Well, every dumb fuck idea on the planet has already been enacted or made state law in Oregon.

          1. Did Oregon pass a bill setting the value of pi to exactly 3.2?

            1. I think they set it to 3. Because 3.2 is too artificial. Not organic enough. And 3 is, as we know, an element of the organic numbers.

          2. I’m Jewish
            Both my parents were Jewish.
            My grandparents were Jewish
            My brothers and I all “look Jewish “
            I would say that I am a member of the Jewish race

      2. Rubbish. It teaches that anyone born white is RAYCISSSS!

    2. All of which would be another reason to view 2020–21 to be the apex of
      teachers union power, to be followed by inexorable descent.

      Every teacher, and for that matter every government employee, must understand that they do not have to bow to union pressure any longer. The SCOTUS ruling in JANUS vs. AFSCME (2018?) allows all those paying union dues to resign from the union and the union cannot continue to collect any dues or fees. That applies whether you are in a “right to work” state or not. See https://www.optouttoday.com/

      Send your resignation letter to your union today. I did years ago, even before JANUS.

  12. So the funding reductions are forcing the younger teachers back into the real workforce, the old farts with seniority are retiring on droves, and the unions still pretend they will have power in the near future.
    The next few years of school board elections should be some of the greatest street theatre ever seen.

  13. Public schools are Marxist/communist/LGBTQ indoctrination centers pushing b.s. CRT.
    Small wonder so many parents are now home schooling or private schooling.
    No Marxist brainwashing, no CRT, no LGBTQ rubbish no lunatic leftist idiocy.

  14. If a popular school has empty seats, why aren’t parents whose kids couldn’t get in before taking those seats?

    1. If you are talking about Brooklyn’s P.S. 118, I don’t think it is a magnet/charter school. All the parents who want their kids to go there are sending them there.

      Out of district parents are out of luck. They can’t send there kids to P.S. 118.

  15. Government never fails to disappoint. Public education is an example !

  16. Excellent!!!! Commie-Indoctrination should fail.

    It’s not human to point Gov-Guns at people that threatens to shoot them or enslave them about what they have or haven’t learned.

    Once the Commie monopoly on education ends; People will start learning from the ‘best’ people in whatever they want to learn instead of being dictated what to learn from the politicians (the stupidest ones).

  17. Segregation Academy is Best Academy

    I hope the youngins enjoy Raphael Semmes Academy this year Matt.

  18. Hhhhmmm? So we’re surprised that socialism is failing yet again?

  19. One might think that the welch guy would be thrilled to be reporting all of this phenomenally fantastic news;
    Public schools are toast.
    Private schools are growing.
    Teacher’s unions are in free fall.

    But the tone of the piece doesn’t reflect the welch guy’s joy. The tone seems something more like annoyed, if not very very annoyed. But why? The worm has turned, old grandpa dad is having his day, which until how he had only dreamed. Henceforth, it will be the welch guy’s way! If this is not a cause for endless celebration, what is?

    If all of that wasn’t enough for the welch guy, he has secured in-person private schooling, where any sort of closure or quarantine is impossible! Not only just for the rest of delta’s run, but also for any of delta’s cousins that might emerge before the end of the school year.

    The private market has offered the welch guy the predictability he wanted to buy, and he bought it. And the public system is in ruins. The welch guy should be damn near cataclysmic, if not dancing on the ceiling half the day. Yet he still seems kinda angry.

  20. Is there a writer for this web sites who DON’T live in Brooklyn?

  21. Matt,

    But charter schools are still public, subject to all the same Covid restrictions as the rest of the public schools. So how much is Covid, and how much is due to the equity and related issues that have been rattling city schools these past few years?

    I’m guessing Covid is giving progressive parents cover to get the hell out without stating the actual reason.

  22. One point of contention, I’d day “public schools” is a misnomer; you had it right with “government schools.”

    We used to educate, but now they just indoctrinate. And without quality to incentivize, people are not going to deal with the boatload of bullshit and fed tape.

  23. Why do you want to tear down America?
    Whose side are you on, Gleb?

  24. I have a question for the author of this article. He spends a lot of time talking about what the public schools are doing and how he thinks that is driving parents (like him) to take their children out of public schools. Fine. But what does he think they should be doing differently? He never really says. At least, not with anything specific.

    He mentions about how some schools are testing kids and staff, with those that test positive and those that were in the classroom with them quarantined. Would he suggest that they don’t test anyone? Or not quarantine those that test positive or unvaccinated individuals that were exposed to someone infected? Does he think that no one should be wearing masks? He talks about how schools in the U.S. are being more restrictive than other developed countries. So what are those other countries doing differently and how is that working out for them?

    This seems to be standard operating procedure for many of the writers at Reason. Talk about how badly the government or unions are doing something, but don’t offer anything specific as an alternative.

    1. Think for second, just think – would Welch send his kids of private schools, if they just copied and pasted every covid measure taken by public schools? What would be the point of that?

      Some schools in Europe stopped mandating masks. I don’t think even South Korea tests elementary students on a weekly basis.

      The alternative is outside of the public schools. That’s the point of the article.

  25. “a real tragedy for our community”? Also, notice how no cuts in the bloated administration is ever suggested. Public schools are nothing more than union dues creators. I vote against EVERY bond proposal or tax increase that relates to these factories.

  26. Unfortunately, many poor families can’t afford to flee. That means that Democrat policies are ensuring that the children of the poor are receiving the worst educations in America. Those policies appear to be intentional as Democrat politicians rely on the votes of a permanent underclass (chained to dependency) in order to win elections.

  27. Matt forgot to add fewer kiddos being born. That means fewer kiddos exist to enter school.

    For example: My local public elementary school tore down its 3 temp buildings permanently.

    1. Where I’m from, there are quite a few former elementary schools that have been converted to senior centers. At the college where I work, we’ve been preparing for this natural enrollment drop for the last half decade.

  28. There’s a pandemic, thus please send donations to your nearest billionaire charter school kleptocrat. Reason, paying the bills through thick and thin.

    Explain something to me. Once we abolish public schools and send every child to the high-quality charter school of their parents’ choice, won’t we just have public schools all over again, except wit some paper-pushing corporation taking a cut?

    Surely it must be subsidized by the taxpayer (who the moribund Republican-kleptocrat alliance think of as customers you can point guns at). How else you gonna pay for it?

    1. And yet…the teachers union is a Democrat stronghold, progressive ideologies are being taught in public schools (sometimes secretly!), and parents who don’t agree are put onto enemies lists. Buy yet….damn Republicans, it’s their fault. Your one functioning brain cell must ricochet around the inside of your skull like a mob kill .22 round.

      1. Ah, so it is the well-trodden strategy of taking a public institution, putting ideological allies in charge, and selling its product back to us at a markup for important profit purposes.

        Except this time it’s schools, one of the few industries permitted to have a union nowadays. Unionizing is a basic right of workers. Don’t you know that? Who cares if they disagree with you politically. Don’t you want teachers to have the same freedoms you demand for yourself?

        Or is your general project simply eliminating people you judge to be counter-revolutionary? Talk about well-trodden ground.

        1. One of the few permitted…

          You wear slip-on shoes, I can tell. Laces can be difficult.

    2. “There’s a pandemic, thus please send donations to your nearest billionaire charter school kleptocrat. Reason, paying the bills through thick and thin.”

      Yeah, publicly ran schools don’t receive billions of dollars in funding. SARC

      “Explain something to me. Once we abolish public schools and send every child to the high-quality charter school of their parents’ choice, won’t we just have public schools all over again, except wit some paper-pushing corporation taking a cut?”

      Is this like saying if every crappy government ran housing was replaced by private apartments that receive federal funding to cater to low income families, we’d have government ran housing all over again, except your rent would go to landlords? Better housing is no excuse for someone getting rich?

      “Surely it must be subsidized by the taxpayer (who the moribund Republican-kleptocrat alliance think of as customers you can point guns at). How else you gonna pay for it?”

      The taxpayers fund public schools. We just want something’s not a failure to be funded.

      Tony and his friends think America’s education system is great. This delusion disqualifies them from running any form of government. The very base of the democrat party (blacks, Latinos) know public schools fail them at every turn.

      1. But you’re demonstrating an acute misapplication of logic. You and I both want to improve the education system in this country. We both likely want to change how it’s paid for. You fix things that are broken, you don’t throw them away and replace them with a “theory” of a new thing.

        And I fail to discern how one is different from the other, ultimately. Unless you want to add a bunch of new costs associated with a nationwide boarding school model, as implied by the promise of a supposed expansion of “choice.” We’ll have children positively crisscrossing the nation in search of their favorite schools; it will be a veritable smorgasbord of educational options.

        You do know that means the “urban” kids get to go to your lily-white suburban football hubs, right? Let that just be the outcome–though I’m sure you have keeping the wrong sort of children out of your favorite schools at top of mind, somehow.

        1. You do not want improvements, you just want everyone locked in the same box, which is why freedom of choice seems like a foreign language to your peabrain.

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  31. The best way to help your kids is to get them out of public schools and into non-woke private schools that teach STEML (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and (English) Language). Do it now!

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