By Russell H. Withers, General Counsel & Director of Policy August 19, 2022
Brittany Bernstein has an interesting article in National Review Online this morning in which she identifies a national trend in declining public school enrollment that began before COVID-19 and gained more steam during the pandemic. New York City, for example, is projected to have enrollment losses of 30,000 students this fall after losing 43,000 students during the 2020-21 school year and 21,000 in the 2021-22 school year. On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District is projecting a 30 percent enrollment decline over the next decade. Nationwide, public K-12 enrollment is down by approximately 1.5 million students in the last year.
Despite leading the nation in population growth, the trend of declining public school enrollment is present in Texas' major cities as well. In Austin Independent School District (AISD), for example, student enrollment is down approximately 10 percent since the 2016-17 school year. Indeed, an AISD publication from 2018 shows steady enrollment decline going back to 2011. Enrollment is also down in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.
Where are all of these kids going? The parents of these children, many of whom once trusted the public education system without question, are aggressively moving their children to private schools, charter schools (charter schools are, in fact, public schools), and they are also giving homeschooling a try.
Jonathan Butcher of the Heritage Foundation (who I had the pleasure of co-authoring an op-ed with on the topic of Education Savings Accounts in the Houston Chronicle in 2017) points out in the National Review Online article that declining enrollment had already begun before the pandemic, but the pandemic accelerated it for many parents. He points out that there "was a changing need for families in the U.S. and the system is designed to continue a system, it’s designed to support a set of school buildings that provide a very similar level of education to everybody and that is not a system that can adjust when families need something else.”
Indeed, the apparent recognition that a one-size-fits-all system may not be the best option for their child has taken root like never before. Strong majorities favor choices in education no matter how the question is broken down. Consider the following nationwide poll of registered voters when asked:
"School choice gives parents the right to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school which best serves their needs. Generally speaking, would you say you support or oppose the concept of school choice?"
Among all respondents, 72% support (an increase of +8 percentage points from one year earlier)
Among Democrats, 68% support (a +9 percentage point increase from one year earlier)
Among Republicans, 82% support (a +7 percentage point increase from one year earlier)
Among Independents, 67% support (a +7 percentage point increase from one year earlier)
The breakdown is similar across race and ethnic lines:
White: 72% support / 19% oppose
Black: 70% support / 17% oppose
Hispanic: 77% support / 14% oppose
Asian: 66% support / 26% oppose
This trend is now at the point where elected officials of all political parties can be confident that their constituents want more choices in education, but anyone familiar with Texas politics on the topic of education choice knows where the lines are drawn in the state legislature. A coalition of (most) Democrats and some Republicans has effectively prevented choice bills from passing. The Republicans in the coalition largely represent districts in which the local public schools genuinely and earnestly fear that a major choice program would harm their public schools. They also point to the lack of choices in less populated areas in order to argue that it would provide no benefit to their district anyway. This piece is not a response to those criticisms, but we know from programs implemented all over the country that choice programs do not harm traditional public schools. Furthermore, the lack of options in one area is a poor argument for denying choice in others.
Proponents in Texas will have to convince a good number of legislators to change their positions if a major choice program will ever be adopted here. The data on enrollment and alternatives, as well as the polling on support for choice, show that constituent attitudes are changing rapidly. More and more parents want alternatives and are willing to say so publicly. Parental empowerment through educational choices is popular. As a matter of public policy, it is the right thing to do and has the potential to benefit millions of students. As a political matter, it is a fruit that hangs lower and lower. Eventually, someone will pick that fruit. Conservatives across the country have championed choice programs and capitalized politically on their passage. It would be a shame to once again pass up that win and give it to someone down the line.