The following is a guest post from Jessica Calarco, Associate Professor of Sociology, Indiana University
The COVID-19 pandemic is putting public education at risk. It has pushed some families out of public schooling and prompted others to opt out, as well.
As Emily Cox of the Herald-Times reported last week, MCCSC enrollment appears to be down 7% from last year. My own calculations (comparing numbers recently released by MCCSC to last year’s enrollment numbers) suggest that those declines are hitting the younger grades especially hard, with elementary enrollment down 12%.
And MCCSC is not alone. A recent EdWeek survey found that more than half of educators in the U.S. are seeing enrollment declines in their districts' elementary schools, and especially in the lower grades, with nearly half reporting enrollment declines at the middle and high school level, as well.
Some of these missing students have been pushed out of public schooling. When schools opened online this fall, some of these students didn’t have access to internet or a safe, quiet space to learn at home. Some needed more support than their family can provide at home, either because of disabilities, or because they are English language learners, or because their parents are essential workers. Some are staying home alone all day, and some may have siblings to care for, as well. These are the students for whom participating in online learning would be difficult or even impossible. Some of these students—especially if their families have more resources and more connections—have found alternative school options, and some just aren’t learning at all.
Meanwhile, and even if they could participate in online public schooling, other missing students have opted out, instead. Some are being homeschooled by a family member, neighbor, or private tutor. Others in enrolling in online charter schools. And still others have opted to enroll in private schools or other nearby districts where schools opened in-person on time.
These families are opting out for a wide range of reasons. My research with families here in Southern Indiana suggests that some families were dissatisfied with the online instruction their children received last spring, and they are confident that they (or a paid tutor) can better meet their children’s needs. Some families have found it difficult to juggle online school schedules with their work schedules, even if they are working from home, so they found an in-person option or created a homeschool schedule that doesn’t conflict with their own. Still other families have been frustrated by the uncertainty around public schooling plans, so they found an option that would give them a more consistent experience this year.
And of course, it’s understandable why families are opting out. The pandemic is still raging, and the risks of in-person instruction are high. Meanwhile, public schools haven’t been given the money they need to reopen while keeping students, families, and educators safe—with enough teachers and space for small in-person classes, proper ventilation in every classroom, or enough bathrooms to not have to share. Furthermore, online learning is difficult or impossible for many students and families. And educators haven’t been given the time, training, or tech support to smoothly transition online.
The problem, however, is that regardless of why students leave public schooling, the money follows them out. As the Herald-Times reported, a 7% decline in MCCSC enrollment will mean a loss of $5.2 million in funding from the state. And because this year’s enrollment determines funding for next year, MCCSC will lose that money regardless of how many students reenroll. Those funding cuts will almost certainly mean job losses for local teachers and local district staff. They will also mean bigger class sizes and fewer resources and opportunities for the students and families relying on public schools. Students and families who may need those resources the most.
But lost resources aren’t the only problem here. As I argued recently in the New York Times, when families pull their children out of public schooling, those opt-outs “undermine the public’s confidence in the quality of public education and the necessity of funding it as a public good.” Essentially, the more families that opt out of public schooling, the more policymakers will feel justified in defunding public education and shifting school resources to private and for-profit options, instead.
At the same time, however, it’s important not to blame the families who’ve opted out. The real blame belongs to the politicians who’ve refused to take the steps necessary to stop the virus. To the policymakers who, even more despicably, have treated this pandemic as a political and financial opportunity and not as a serious threat. They're the ones who have the most to gain from families opting out. And they're the ones making the situation worse.