Public Schools Must Face the Reality of Shrinking Enrollment

“there’s every indication that the initial public school enrollment shocks from the pandemic won’t rebound any time soon. Educators need to be prepared for a new normal where school choice programs are widespread, families are increasingly choosing options outside of traditional public schools, and public school spending has to be reined in to serve smaller student populations.
Several factors explain why public school student populations are shrinking. Parents were dissatisfied with the prolonged periods of online learning and forced masking at their schools during the pandemic, and the negative effects on students of keeping schools closed have been well-documented. One analysis from the Associated Press found that from 2019 to 2022, “the average student lost more than half a school year of learning in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading.” Many of the deep-blue districts that kept schools closed the longest paid the biggest price for that decision, in terms of both enrollment losses and academic backsliding.

Meanwhile, the private education market seems to be booming. According to a study published in February 2022 by the Urban Institute, the pandemic exodus of students from public schools coincided with a sustained increase in private schooling and homeschooling. The 33 states (plus D.C.) with available data saw a more than 4 percent enrollment jump at private schools between fall 2019 and fall 2021—which is unsurprising, given that private schools returned to in-person learning much more quickly than public schools did.

The private education market is also evolving away from traditional classroom formats. The same Urban Institute study found that the 21 states (plus D.C.) with available data saw a more than 30 percent increase in homeschooling in the same timeframe. “Microschools”—tiny private schools that operate in nontraditional settings such as libraries and churches—have also grown substantially. Mike McShane of the pro–school choice group EdChoice told The Wall Street Journal last month that microschools now likely serve between one and two million students.

If public school enrollment isn’t rebounding after the pandemic waned, that’s a sign that families are largely sticking with these new learning settings. This momentum will likely continue thanks to the flurry of school choice programs that were either adopted or expanded in the 2021, 2022, and 2023 state legislative sessions.

There is another critical piece behind the decline in public school enrollment that shouldn’t be overlooked. NCES projections of stagnating and declining school-age populations in many of the nation’s large and coastal states actually predate both the pandemic and the recent surge of school choice. These two factors seem to have accelerated population changes that many school systems were going to soon confront anyway.”

The conservative push for “school choice” has had its most successful year ever

“It started with West Virginia in 2021 and Arizona in 2022, and then continued with a flood this year — Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana. More may follow.”

“The reform sweeping red America is slightly different from a voucher — it’s called an education savings account, or an ESA. In a voucher system, public funds go directly to schools. With ESAs, parents who opt out of the public school system get several thousand dollars in an account that they can use for private school tuition, homeschooling, or other education-related expenses.”

“Critics of these changes argue they amount to a wealth transfer to families with kids in private schools, and they fear it will result in the weakening or even the eventual privatization of public school systems. They also voice concern over the separation of church and state, since many ESA funds will go toward sending children to religious education.
For many supporters, those are features, not bugs. They characterize the new ESA laws as letting parents take “their money” — the dollars that would have been used to educate their kids — out of public schools they have no interest in using. They call this “funding students instead of systems.” Their critics say it’s the destruction of the common good.”

““In the short term, mostly it’s just going to be a funding giveaway to families that were already sending their kids to private schools,” said Douglas Harris, an economist at Tulane University who studies education policy. “In the long run, there’s potentially a much bigger story here.””

“What is the money producing? Again, the answer is unclear. The Goldwater Institute bragged in 2022 that Arizona’s ESA bill “does not have any testing requirements.” (Iowa legislators, in contrast, did include some.)

Critics fear state money will go to low-quality private schools that don’t actually educate children well — and that, without transparent testing requirements, we’ll never find that out for sure. “These policies being passed now are almost being evidence-proofed,” said Polikoff. “You won’t be able to say, ‘This isn’t working, we need to do something different,’ because there won’t be the data. The data will just be, ‘Look at all these people who’ve enrolled their kids.’””

“Arizona’s superintendent Tom Horne has said he would push to close some public schools if enrollment dropped, which is just what rural school voucher skeptics long feared.”

“Private schools have wide latitude to discriminate in admissions (though it’s illegal to do so based on race) — can it truly be called “universal school choice” if children can’t get into the school they want?”

Florida’s restrictive sex ed rules are causing back-to-school mayhem

“Thanks to a vague law and even vaguer directions from Florida’s education department, some school district leaders remain unsure if the course is even legal to teach. It’s a situation that highlights how difficult — and confusing — it has become for schools to navigate the state’s increasingly restrictive education policies.”

“Florida, the College Board declared, had “effectively banned AP Psychology.””

“Díaz sent a letter to district leaders on August 4 to clear things up. “The Department of Education is not discouraging districts from teaching AP Psychology,” it read. When district leaders asked for further clarification, Díaz responded in a follow-up letter on August 9 — just a day before the school year was set to begin in much of the state — insisting, “It is the Department of Education’s stance that [the] learning target … can be taught consistent with Florida law.” Díaz again rejected the assertion that the state had banned the course.”

“Districts have had to do a frenzied dance to keep up with the quick changes. One day, Mike Burke, Palm Beach County’s school chief, apologetically announced that he was removing AP Psych, stating, “If there was a way we could teach this course and not have our teachers get arrested, we would do it in a second,” according to the Palm Beach Post — and he reversed that decision just days later.
Other districts aren’t adding back AP Psychology, having already ordered textbooks for alternate courses, while some are refusing to re-adopt the course because they’re fearful that teachers could still face legal consequences. Meanwhile, some districts were prepared to just ignore the state’s mixed messages all along. “I have communicated to our staff to respect the law and follow the law, but not to fear the law and do more than it requires,” Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said in a statement.

For many, however, the fear had already taken hold. Seven of the 11 districts with the largest enrollments in the course said they would make the switch to an alternative class, rushing to catch teachers up on the new material”

” A series of laws signed by Gov. DeSantis in the past two years have created significant challenges for educators. The laws, which critics call “classroom gag orders,” build on one another, creating a web of restrictions that educators must navigate to avoid legal consequences. The AP Psychology course could technically be considered illegal under three of the state’s restrictive education laws — the “Don’t Say Period” law, the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and the Stop WOKE Act, which bans schools and businesses from teaching anything that could make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of their race, gender, sex, or national origin.”

Florida’s drive to scrutinize what kids read is costing tens of thousands of dollars

“Florida school districts are spending tens of thousands of dollars to comply with a new state law that’s increased scrutiny — and removal — of books in K-12 school libraries.
The new law requires all campuses to digitally chronicle each book shelved and available for students in classroom libraries. Yet many schools, tight on staff with thousands of books to inventory, are outsourcing the arduous work of making all books searchable on local websites to a third-party company. Those services are costing districts between $34,000 to $135,000 annually, according to contracts reviewed by POLITICO.”

More States Are Using Science-Backed Reading Instruction. It Shouldn’t Have Taken This Long.

“Since 2013, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have all passed legislation mandating that teachers be trained in the “science of reading”—methods that typically center around phonics, an approach in which children are taught to read words by decoding the sounds that different letters or groups of letters make. Since these policies’ implementation, reading performance in these states has dramatically improved, even though reading scores there have historically been among the lowest in the nation.”

An economist spent decades arguing money wouldn’t help schools. His new paper finds it usually does.

“The paper, set to be published later this year, is a new review of dozens of studies. It finds that when schools get more money, students tend to score better on tests and stay in school longer, at least according to the majority of rigorous studies on the topic.”

“The findings seem like a remarkable turnabout compared to prior research from Hanushek, who had for four decades concluded in academic work that most studies show no clear relationship between spending and school performance. His work has been cited by the US Supreme Court and pushed a generation of federal policymakers and advocates looking to fix America’s schools to focus not on money but ideas like teacher evaluation and school choice.
Despite his new findings, Hanushek’s own views have not changed. “Just putting more money into schools is unlikely to give us very good results,” he said in a recent interview. The focus, he insists, should be on spending money effectively, not necessarily spending more of it. Money might help, but it’s no guarantee.

Hanushek’s view matters because he remains influential, playing a dual role as a leading scholar and advocate — he continues to testify in court cases about school funding and to shape how many lawmakers think about improving schools.”

“The context matters, they say. Sometimes money is spent well; sometimes it’s spent poorly. Sometimes the effects are big; other times they are small or nonexistent. Just focusing on the overall effect masks this variation.”

“Other researchers agreed that the variation in results is important, but that shouldn’t mean ignoring the overall impact. “The average effect still matters,” said West, the Harvard professor.”

Lawsuit: It’s Time To Start Paying Off Those Student Loans Again

“Student loan payments have been paused since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. However, in the three years since the pause began, the economic and legal justification for the continued moratorium has grown increasingly weak.
Not only has the economy recovered in full force—leading to the lowest unemployment rate in over 50 years—but President Joe Biden himself has declared that “the pandemic is over.” Yet, student loan payments are still paused—with the same, flimsy justification that the pandemic emergency rages on and student loan borrowers simply can’t be expected to shoulder the unsurmountable burden of paying back their loans, especially with a Supreme Court ruling on sweeping student loan forgiveness eminent.

However, a new legal challenge has emerged to try to end the absurdity.”

“The HEROES Act was passed in 2003 and allows the federal government to provide student loan relief to college students who withdraw from school in order to enter active military duty during a time of “war or other military operation or national emergency.”

While the Department of Education has long claimed that the COVID pandemic presents such a national emergency, the lawsuit contends that a yearslong student loan repayment pause is simply out of the HEROES Act’s scope.

The Act was explicitly designed to help a very specific group of Americans—those that leave school to serve in a war. “Recasting the HEROES Act from a statute permitting limited modifications for targeted groups (primarily those serving in the military during wartime) to one that can suspend payments and cancel interest for all 45 million borrowers is a change so significant” that it fundamentally revises the statue, the lawsuit states.”

“The student loan repayment moratorium is one of the strangest holdovers of the COVID-era government spending spree. Whatever economic—and legal—justification to suspend loan repayment has long since expired, making each new extension seem more bizarre than the last.

In the meantime, the cost of the payment pause keeps ticking up. As the lawsuit notes, “The Moratorium has been wiping out $5 billion of assets owned by the United States every month for the past 32 months without any statutory authorization or appropriation, at a cumulative cost to taxpayers of $160 billion and counting.””