What if New York City's K-12 enrollment numbers for government-run schools are so embarrassingly low that the city is deliberately suppressing them to avoid criticism for how it has handled school policies during COVID-19?
That's the blunt question being asked this week not just by libertarian school-choice advocates or ornery local tabloids, but by the Democratic Party heavyweights heading up the City Council's Education Committee and the largest local teachers union.
"Respectfully," City Council education honcho Mark Treyger asked Department of Education (DOE) Deputy Chancellor Donald Conyers at a hearing Wednesday, "how many students do we have currently enrolled in our public school system?"
Seems like such a simple question. But: "And I will respectfully say to you," Conyers replied, "that I don't have that number to give you at this moment."
The moment of DOE number-delivery has been delayed almost as much as Top Gun: Maverick. On September 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the first-day-of-school attendance rate from the day before was a scientific-sounding 82.4 percent—"clearly better than some people feared or thought might happen, but not as high as the last time we had a first day of school before the pandemic, when it was about 90 percent." Upon cross-examination, however, de Blasio admitted that he was unable to produce either the numerator or the denominator for that particular calculation. "The city's Department of Education is hiding important information about school enrollment and attendance," the New York Daily News concluded in an editorial.
NYC Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter promised reporters at the press conference that, "As soon as we get to the point where we have full attendance taken across our system, we'll share those numbers." Three-plus weeks later, that point has been put off to October 31, and only then because that's the deadline for reporting enrollment to the state.
"They know how many kids didn't show up," United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew charged at Wednesday's City Council meeting. "They are hiding this….We're playing this game of, 'I'm not going to tell you what's wrong because politically it might not work for us.'"
The local politics of school-enrollment numbers are as complicated as they are unnecessary for non-New Yorkers to grok, though the reality of families continuing to flee government-operated schools seems likely to challenge policy makers and infuriate taxpayers from coast to coast as the 2021–22 data roll in. In the Big Apple, teachers unions are irked at having to comply with a workplace vaccine mandate that went into effect this week, and with de Blasio's insistence that remote learning this school year would be a nonstarter. From the UFT's narrow view, bad numbers would vindicate teachers' claims that skeptical families need a remote option and a more robust testing regime for unvaccinated students.
But the numbers stink in places where the rules were written by the unions, too. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the country's second-largest, saw its enrollment drop by a shocking 6 percent at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, after declining 4 percent the year before that. The LAUSD, one of the country's most-closed big-city systems in 2020–21 despite Southern California's temperate weather, has the nation's most aggressive COVID-19 testing regime (every student and staffer, every week, regardless of vaccination status), plus vaccine mandates on teachers and students aged 12 and older.
United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) has extracted concession after concession from the local Democratic political establishment, and is now looking at a two-year, 10 percent drop in the customer base for a free product. This will apply downward pressure on the number of unionized teacher jobs available.
As Reason Foundation Director of Education Reform Aaron Garth Smith noted last week in InsideSources, "States primarily fund schools based on student enrollment numbers, so after decades of administrative bloat, public schools may face budget cuts or rising deficits if they fail to earn back the trust of parents." If the LAUSD enrollment decline lasts, Smith wrote, "the district would expect to get approximately $250 million less in state funding than it otherwise would receive."
The importance of per-student funding is so great that the enrollment-bleeding Detroit Public Schools this week offered students free Pistons tickets if they showed up to every class on "count day." An elementary school in my Brooklyn district lost eight teachers after seeing its two-year enrollment numbers decline by one-third.
New York City K-12 enrollment declined at least 4 percent in 2020–21, even while charter schools increased by more than 7 percent. The nationwide enrollment decline, apparent in all 50 states, was 3 percent. Homeschooling in the meantime has doubled.
The question gnawing at the public education establishment has been whether these numbers are a pandemic aberration or inflection point. Millions of parents, myself included, got face-to-face over the past 19 months with the way public schools are administered, and did not like what they discovered. There are recall efforts against school board members all over the country, most notably in San Francisco. Contentious public school meetings have become the 2021 analog to the summer 2009 congressional townhalls with angry constituents, right down to the media panic and heightened law-enforcement awareness.
But beyond the long-term trajectory of public education and the funding/politics thereof, there's the pressing immediate-term question of where those missing students are. You cannot track educational progress or assess outreach efforts toward those who have been stuck in remote learning if you don't have a baseline attendance number.
"This should be basic," said Treyger, who has introduced legislation requiring the DOE to cough up enrollment data. "This should not be controversial. The fact that we don't share how many kids are enrolled in our school system right now is unacceptable to me. And, quite frankly, further erodes trust with the public….It is unfathomable to me—and insulting to this committee and to the public—that they will not share the attendance data and information."