On Monday, many California classrooms were sparsely filled as students walked out to protest against the state's vaccine mandate. Still at their desks were a majority of kids whose families either disagreed with protesters or were indifferent to the issue. It was a timely illustration of how simmering tensions over one-size-fits-some public schools have come to a head during the pandemic, leaving students and parents alienated from government-run institutions and looking for something more to their taste.
"School districts in Shasta County reported high numbers of student absences on Monday, after walkout organizers called for students, staff and teachers to stay away from school to protest staff COVID-19 vaccine mandates that went into effect on Friday," reported the Record Searchlight. "While all Enterprise Elementary School District schools were in session on Monday, 45% of the student body was absent, District Superintendent Heather Armelino said."
"Thousands of parents, students and teachers walked out of school and onto the California State Capitol lawn in Sacramento, all in protest of the state vaccine mandate," added Sacramento's CBS13.
This wasn't the first time that pandemic policy spurred dissatisfaction with public schools. Since the appearance of COVID-19, parents and students have argued with teachers, administrators, and one another about remote learning, in-person attendance, social distancing, mask requirements, and now mandatory vaccination. The result is conflict, and many families giving up on traditional public schools.
"Before the 2020-21 school year, educators, policymakers, and parents confronted the stark and uncertain trade-offs implied by the health, educational, and economic consequences of offering instruction remotely, in person, or through a hybrid of the two," note Stanford University researchers in a working paper released in August through the National Bureau of Economic Research. "We find offering remote-only instead of in-person instruction reduced enrollment by 1.1 percentage points."
Dissatisfaction with remote classes isn't the only factor. The cumulative effect of unhappiness with what public schools offer added up to an unprecedented 3 percent enrollment drop last year according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
"The decreases were widespread and affected almost every single state and every region of the country," commented NCES Acting Commissioner Peggy Carr. "Some states saw enrollment declines by 4 to 5 percent. The data are preliminary but concerning."
The enrollment decline continues with this school year. Los Angeles public schools report a 6 percent plunge in enrollment—larger than the 4 percent seen last year. Hawaii's public school enrollment is down 1.7 percent this year. The slide in the ranks of Wisconsin public school students is meager by comparison, at only 0.5 percent.
Not every public school is seeing a rush for the exits. In Arizona, where education options were well-established long before the pandemic, enrollment actually increased by 3.5 percent for 2021-2022. But the trend around the country indicates a steady trickle away from traditional district schools.
Where are the kids going?
"The increase in independent charter school enrollment was 10 times last year's increase — 15.6 percent, compared to a 1.6 percent increase the year before," reports Wisconsin Public Radio, which contrasts such growth with the attrition at traditional public schools. "Wisconsin has four private school parental choice programs, which reported a 6.6 percent increase from September 2020 to September 2021, compared to a 5.9 percent increase from 2019 to 2020."
Nationally, it's too early to have a good handle on how kids are learning, but the numbers from last year are telling. Tax-funded but privately managed charter schools enjoyed a 7 percent increase in enrollment, reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. As for private schools,"70 percent of independent schools experienced increases in enrollment or level enrollments during the pandemic recession," according to data that surprised researchers who expected families to be less willing to pay private school tuition during hard economic times. And the ranks of homeschoolers more than tripled to 11.1 percent of students during the last school year, finds the Census Bureau.
Not that everyone abandoning public schools wants the same thing. "Homeschooling increased more where schools provided in-person instruction while private schooling increased more where instruction was remote," note University of Michigan researchers. "These divergent patterns highlight how either learning modality was likely to motivate a shift of substantial numbers of would-be public sector students to alternative educational sectors."
The most recent monthly polling data from EdChoice supports the idea that families have widely varying preferences. About 72 percent of respondents want schools to provide multiple learning options. Relevant to the California protests are deep divisions over vaccine mandates, with 39 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed for students over 12, and 31 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed for students ages 5-11. Mask mandates draw more support, but still substantial opposition. That means schools with uniform policies are bound to alienate many of the students and parents they serve.
But the same could be said of other controversies, including debates over curriculum which have also come to a head, testing, disciplinary policy, and other matters. These disagreements fueled support for education options even before pandemic policy dramatically eroded the standing of the education establishment. Families are spared the aggravation of battling politicians, administrators, teachers, and each other when they can pick options that work for them. No wonder EdChoice's polling consistently finds higher levels of satisfaction among parents with kids educated in charter schools, in private schools, or at home than among those using district schools.
The catch is that everybody must pay the price for district public schools, whether or not they want to use them; the cost of alternatives is additional. That's a high hurdle, making it remarkable that so many families choose private schools, charters, and homeschooling anyway. That more want access to options for themselves and others is clear from the high and growing support for school choice that lets funding follow students, instead of being dedicated to government institutions.
Parents and students protesting public school policies now will likely be much happier in the future when they've left not just those policies, but also the schools, behind.