Public Schools Experiencing 'White Flight'

Whether in response to pandemic closures or policy changes made in the name of "equity," people classified as white are fleeing government-run K-12 in startling numbers.


Six months before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted mass school closures nationwide, a K-12 district in Brooklyn became the vanguard of a citywide, nationally watched push to combat "segregation" through scrapping selective admissions criteria and instituting the algorithmic lottery system of "controlled choice." Meaning, families would rank their choices for middle school, and the Department of Education (DOE) would feed those preferences into a complicated sorting process through which government can better control the racial and socioeconomic distribution among the schools.

These admissions changes, which affected incoming middle schoolers the year my eldest daughter was entering sixth grade in that very same district, was prematurely declared a success upon arrival by the progressive Democrats who had pushed them through. It was "the white flight that wasn't," declared the Daily News headline on a 2019 op-ed co-bylined by the relevant city councilman (now comptroller for the whole city) Brad Lander, and equity activists Nyah Berg and David Tipson from the advocacy group New York Appleseed. "New data reveal that Brooklyn school integration is working."

Well, about that.

The pandemic, an asteroid-level event that permanently altered the landscape for public education in the U.S., is the Big Bang when it comes to plummeting enrollment numbers and catastrophic learning loss in government-run K-12. And the big-city systems that were most likely to be closed or to impose onerous COVID-19 restrictions from the fall of 2020 onward were the ones that suffered the most bleed along both measures.

But they are also, as in New York, the most likely districts to adopt such "equity"-driven policy changes as controlled choice for admissions, ending specialized schools and Gifted & Talented programs, and adopting "restorative justice" approaches to student discipline. Some of those policies were already correlating with unforeseen enrollment declines before the pandemic; others became political flashpoints during the COVID years as newly involved public school parents noticed with bewilderment that even shuttered systems were focusing to an obsessive degree on policies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

At the time Brad Lander et al. wrote their triumphant op-ed, the first-year enrollment results of Brooklyn's District 15 indeed showed no significant difference in the districtwide proportions of the ethnic/racial categories the DOE tracks (white, Hispanic, black, Asian). But as I detailed back then, the overall enrollment of new middle schoolers declined for the first time in at least a half-decade, in part because the lottery/algorithm produced a disproportionately large number of choices that parents did not want for their kids. Sneered Lander & Co.:

Many observers prophesied that this long-overdue correction would cause many white and affluent families, including those in neighborhoods like Park Slope, to exit the public school system altogether.

We have predicted otherwise—both because the new plan hardly lays such a burden on these families as to cause anything so drastic, and, more fundamentally, because we have more faith in our community….

While we may have lost a handful of families who were not interested in building diverse and supportive school communities, we may be gaining some who are.

Or not. District 15, which indeed has some of the most traditionally sought-after middle schools in the city (particularly Park Slope's M.S. 51, where both Lander and former Mayor Bill de Blasio had already graduated their kids, and where they chose to announce the district's trailblazing equity policies), has seen since changing the admissions policy the number of enrolled sixth graders plummet by 17.6 percent, compared to a 9.6 percent decline for the rest of the city. (Those data go through the 2021–22 school year; we're still waiting on the figures from this fall.)

Who bolted? White students and others whose family incomes did not qualify them for Free and Reduced Price Lunches (FRPL). Using income as a proxy for race (K-12 schools have been barred since 2007 by the Supreme Court from taking race as a direct consideration in enrollment), the district reserved spots in desirable schools for poorer kids while removing screens that had disproportionately kept them out, thus doubly decreasing the odds of the nonpoor being assigned their preferred choices.

"[The plan] resulted in a large increase in the shares of White students and non-FRPL students enrolling outside the public school system," concluded researcher Clémence Idoux in a June 2021 MIT paper. Why? "Because they were assigned on average to schools with lower achieving potential peers after the integration plans….Compared to previous years, White applicants and non-FRPL applicants were offered on average a choice ranked…1.4 position[s] lower in their list."

The admissions changes by Districts 15 and 3 (the latter of which, on the west side of Manhattan, ushered in a similar system the same year) did succeed in reducing both economic and racial segregation, Idoux concluded. But: "As a result of these white student and high income students enrollment losses, the integration plans' effects on racial and economic segregation were halved in both districts."

Keep in mind those were the results after the first year of the admissions change; the district and the city have been bleeding students ever since. New York's DOE, which temporarily copied District 15's removal of middle-school admissions screens for the past two years due to the pandemic, has seen K-12 enrollment shrink by 10 percent since the onset of COVID-19. "We have a massive hemorrhaging of students—massive hemorrhaging," Mayor Eric Adams said in July. "We're in a very dangerous place in the number of students that we are dropping."

What's happening in New York is happening across the country. Big city districts that were disproportionately closed and adopted more stringent COVID restrictions have faced the largest enrollment drops, suffered the worst learning loss, and seen the most unequal results among racial and socioeconomic groups. With funding dollars typically pegged to enrollment numbers, and with federal bailout money coming to an end, districts are sounding bewildered in the face of the enormity of change.

"We've never seen anything like this," Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, recently told Education Week. The EdWeek Research Center last month published the results of a study examining enrollment trends in the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas from 2019–2020 to 2020–21, concluding in the headline: "Suburban Schools Saw Huge Drops in White Enrollment During the Pandemic."

Suburban schools that first COVID year lost 5 percent of their white population, compared to 2 percent each for black and Latino kids, and 1 percent of Asians. The overall share of white students in those schools declined by two percentage points in three years, and 14 percentage points since the 2006–2007 school year.

I will admit here to a certain discomfort in using such crude and broad racial/ethnic classifications to sort populations. Race is a dodgy and ever-malleable construct at best, and we have too much experience with the worst, including and especially in schools. But also, these are the categories being measured by government (try as I personally might to opt out), and those categories' distribution within various systems and outcomes are the object of tangible government policy, which has direct impact on the 50 million–plus K-12 students and their families nationwide, and indirect impact on everyone else, whether taxpayer or resident anywhere near a school.

The most widespread school-integration policy of my childhood—busing—led directly to families evacuating public education and high-tailing out of cities, which then experienced dysfunction and decline. Busing's contemporary successor of controlled choice is producing a similar result, while failing to deliver measurable improvements in schools or measurable closures in the achievement gaps between racial/ethnic and socioeconomic populations.

And now, with the Big Bang of pandemic policies still fresh in parental minds, public educators are waking up to find their workplace landscape almost unrecognizable from even a few years ago.

"Some of them are scratching their heads, saying 'This is something we didn't expect,'" Suzanne Speck, executive vice president of School Services of California, recently told The 74 Million.

A new national survey of 3,100 K-12 parents by the consulting group Tyton Partners showed a one-year, 9 percent drop in the number of parents who said their kids were enrolled in government-run schools. From 2019–2022, the study estimated, private school enrollment increased from 5.7 million to 7.3 million, charter schools jumped from 3.5 million to 5.5 million, and homeschooling more than doubled from 1.9 million to 4.3 million. "This post-pandemic decline in K-12 public school enrollment," the Tyton researchers concluded, "suggests that this is no temporary anomaly but may instead reflect a tipping point."

New York City is now trying to tip the point back. This morning, school Chancellor David Banks announced that the citywide two-year suspension of middle-school admissions screening is over, while laying out new admissions criteria for high schools. "We do believe in high standards," Banks said. Whether parents believe in that belief remains to be seen.

Bonus video: Here's me at the beginning of 2020 talking about controlled choice.