“America’s public school system lost almost 1.3 million students this year,” according to Education Week. This three percent enrollment dip likely doesn’t surprise parents in areas of the country where schools remained closed for most of the school year. Of course, many families chose to homeschool, form learning pods, or enroll their children in a fully-open private school. Their children needed and deserved to learn this year, rather than endure inadequate remote learning, confusing hybrid schedules or “Zoom-in-a-room” school.
Teachers’ unions opposed opening schools and encouraged their members to actively spread fear in their communities in order to convince local school districts to keep schools closed. The public school enrollment drop reflects the failure of public school districts to serve students and families, especially the youngest and most vulnerable children. Parents of younger children were more likely to find educational alternatives. Kindergarten enrollment dropped 10 percent or more in 20 states compared to the previous year.
In states with thriving homeschooling networks, plentiful educational options, and established school choice programs, many students likely will not return to public schools. Parents in school districts that kept their doors shut, or only offered a limited opening after remaining closed for over a year, are fleeing their district schools. The Arlington, Virginia, public school district anticipates an eight percent enrollment decrease due to families choosing not to return to the district. In New York City, kindergarten applications for the upcoming school year decreased by 12 percent. Families don’t want their children to return to the school systems that abandoned their educational mission. Parents understand school district management in a way they never have before and no longer trust district bureaucrats, ineffective school boards, and teachers’ unions.
Instead, families want the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the school which best serves their child’s needs. A recent Echelon Insights poll found that 65% of voters are supportive of school choice, while only 19% are opposed. The concept of education funding following children polled favorably throughout the pandemic public school closures, with strong support across political affiliations and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Parents support flexible Education Savings Accounts (ESA), in particular, with 78% expressing support.
State leaders have responded to school districts’ widespread systemic failure and public support for school choice by drafting legislation that directly funds students, rather than school systems. State legislatures across the country have introduced 66 school choice bills in 35 states this year. Three dozen of these bills create new school choice programs. The bills provide families with purchasing power to direct their children’s educational path, rather than wait helplessly for stagnant public school systems to decide when and how to educate their children.
Remarkably, 20 state legislatures have passed legislation expanding educational opportunities, creating seven new programs and expanding existing programs. In “Oh, What a Year for School Choice,” education freedom advocate, Mike McShane, detailed the numerous victories:
West Virginia passed an absolutely massive ESA bill that will have the broadest eligibility of any school choice program in the nation. Kentucky and Missouri were the first states to create ESAs that would be funded by tax-credited donations rather than directly by the state. And not to be left out, Indiana created a new ESA program, and Florida consolidated one of its voucher programs with its ESA program, allowing more students to have access to ESAs.
Legislatures also expanded voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs. Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, and Maryland all expanded their voucher programs, allowing either broader eligibility, increasing the amount of money available for vouchers, or both. Indiana particularly stands out as now 90 percent of families are eligible for the state’s 10-year-old voucher program. Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, and South Dakota either created new tax-credit scholarship programs or expanded eligibility or funding for their existing programs.
In addition, Texas passed legislation protecting learning pods and expanding direct grants to special needs children, Nevada restored funding to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program, and Ohio and Arizona included school choice expansions in their state budgets.
Families with newly-enacted educational freedoms can thank teachers’ unions for the successful school choice legislation. Teachers’ unions launched the “Red for Ed” movement in 2018 opposing school choice and demanding increased pay, which resulted in lengthy teacher strikes in states and school districts around the country. While their scare tactics initially worked—West Virginia was unable to pass a tiny school choice program three years ago—legislators have tired of their thuggery. After teachers’ unions and complicit school boards caused harmful and prolonged school closures, state legislatures and parents clearly recognized the need for school choice. The result: West Virginia passed the broadest ESA program in the country, and numerous states are also celebrating school choice victories.
Union leaders likely are chagrined to realize their commitment to not teaching students inspired lawmakers to enact new school choice programs for families and students. School district administrators may be scrambling in response to plummeting enrollment. Parents and students in states with new programs can breathe a sigh of relief after a long, difficult year. Their children are no longer trapped in an unresponsive school district school.