The Rise of School Choice: A Growing and Popular Trend

One of the best things about National School Choice Week (celebrated this year from January 21–27) is watching people take advantage of the growing range of options that allow them to opt out of public schools, often while taking per-student funding with them to pay for preferred alternatives. From panicked supporters of government schools to relieved parents and joyful choice advocates, the shift in education is showing up across American society.

Where Are the Public-School Students?

“Fresh from the academic struggles that followed the pandemic, and with federal relief funds soon to run out, [public school district leaders] now confront a massive enrollment crisis,” Linda Jacobson wrote January 9 for education-oriented The74.

Her piece cites recent research from the Brooking Institution, finding that “over a four-year period that includes the pandemic, about 12% of elementary schools and 9% of middle schools lost at least one-fifth of their enrollment.” While there were enrollment declines in public schools pre-COVID, the pandemic marked a significant change, resulting in pressures to close public schools and reduce programs.

But while Jacobson’s article focuses on the struggles of traditional public schools, Brookings researchers have a broader scope. Importantly, they find that part of the explanation is found in kids still happily learning, but through a variety of approaches outside the doors of public-school buildings.

“Declining enrollment in traditional public schools may reflect demographic shifts, migration, and school choice to some extent,” Eloise Burtis and Sofoklis Goulas of the Brookings Institution point out in an October 2023 paper. “For example, families may have tried out various schooling alternatives during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as homeschooling, and may have found that these options worked well for their children or wanted to avoid a transition to a more typical learning setting after COVID-19.”

“At the start of the pandemic, in 2019–20, roughly 84 percent of school-age children were enrolled in traditional public schools,” they add. “This number dropped by 2 percentage points to roughly 81 percent in the 2020–2021 school year, and another 2 percentage points to 79 percent in the 2021–2022 school year.”

They’re Learning Elsewhere

Burtis and Goulas saw gains in kids attending charter schools, virtual schools, and, especially, a grab-bag category “attending private schools, being homeschooled, or out of school entirely.”

That’s helpful-ish, but not as much as an Urban Institute report from earlier in 2023. Author Thomas S. Dee wrote that “over the first two school years under the pandemic, K–12 enrollment in public schools fell by more than 1.2 million students” and that over the same period of time “private school enrollment was 4 percent higher while homeschool enrollment was 30 percent higher.”

In December, the National Center for Education Statistics data reported private school enrollment remaining constant in terms of raw numbers from 2019 through 2022 and growing for younger kids. “Contrary to the increases in the lower grades for private school enrollment, between fall 2019 and fall 2021, public school enrollment decreased by 3 to 6 percent in grades K–7.”

In October, The Washington Post reported homeschooling soared after the appearance of COVID-19 and the closure of many public schools, before settling to a 51 percent gain over pre-pandemic practices. Amidst much fretting over the “largely unregulated” educational approach, the authors labeled homeschooling “America’s fastest-growing form of education” and estimated “there are now between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the United States.”

Why the disparity in numbers? Not all states obsessively track kids’ activities. Many leave it to parents to watch out for their children. Some that require notification may weakly enforce the rule; it was years before I bothered telling Arizona authorities my son was homeschooled. I knew my wife and I did a better job than they could and felt no obligation to defer to officials.

Also, as options proliferate, they sometimes overlap. In what category is a child mostly educated at home, but studying drama at a public high school, chemistry at a community college, and Spanish from an online private school? Data geeks care, but families just want their kids to learn.

Some Kids Were Just Failed by the System

Unfortunately, the explosion of options doesn’t fully explain the disappearance of students from traditional classrooms. “More than a third of the loss in public school enrollment cannot be explained by corresponding gains in private school and homeschool enrollment and by demographic change,” writes the Urban Institute’s Dee.

A big part of the problem lies in the monolithic and remarkably unresponsive public schools that still dominate the education landscape. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many closed their doors for extended periods of time while they fumbled attempts to offer online instruction.

“Some parents, unimpressed by what instruction consisted of during remote learning, didn’t see missing school as that consequential,” Alec MacGillis recently wrote for The New Yorker. “Some simply liked having their kids around.” As a result, school “became optional.”

Some kids may permanently lose out on education. But most families decided that public school is optional, but education is not. They choose homeschooling, private schools, charter schools, and programs that make per-student funding portable, such as vouchers and education savings accounts.

“On a national level, based on most recent data: 1.9% of students are utilizing an educational choice program. 6.8% attend private school by other means. 74.6% attend a traditional public school. 4.9% attend a magnet school. 6.6% attend a charter school. 4.7% are homeschooled,” according to numbers published last week by EdChoice, which supports education freedom.

“It’s little secret 2023 was a transformative year for education,” notes EdChoice research associate Colyn Ritter. “Eight new states joined Arizona and West Virginia in making school choice available to all or nearly all students within their borders. Today, approximately 36% of students have access to educational choice.”

More Choice for Everybody

Extending education choice to more students and families may offer new hope to even those kids who’ve been turned off to learning by the failure of their old schools. Flexible and more impressive approaches to education than what they experienced before might entice them back and give them better knowledge and skills on which to build their lives.

When asked if they want school choice, Americans overwhelmingly say “yes” by 70 percent or more. When offered education options, American families take them. By their actions they demonstrate that the best way to mark School Choice Week is for us to make our own choices about learning.