Over a million new students will be eligible to use private school choice options this school year, thanks to the legislative boom across the country in 2021. Accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and curriculum controversies related to critical race theory, 18 states have either expanded or established a combined 28 school choice programs, earning 2021 the title of “the year of educational choice” by many.
Public opinion shows that support for school choice has reached an all-time high. A June 2021 poll shows that 74% of voters support parents’ ability to choose where their child is educated. The largest jumps in public opinion were among K-12 public school parents, climbing from 67% in from April 2020 to 80%.
School choice even gained support among Democrats, climbing from 59% to 70%.
State lawmakers responded to families and turned to school choice in a big way. They saw the problem with relying on the current one-size-fits-all K-12 education system, which is supposed to serve the needs of a diverse population, and gave families the better alternative.
Of the seven new programs, Kentucky, Missouri, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Indiana established education savings accounts, a flexible savings account where parents can spend on a variety of educational resources, including, but not limited to, tuition, tutoring, online learning programs, special education services, and more.
These programs aren’t only for families with low incomes, either—the education savings accounts in West Virginia are available to 93% of K-12 students.
Florida expanded existing education savings account, voucher, and tax credit scholarship programs by loosening eligibility requirements and reorganized them all under one program. More recently, Florida’s Department of Education even expanded eligibility of the state’s Hope Scholarship to include those students whose school COVID-19 mitigation policies don’t align with their health needs.
Indiana almost doubled its voucher program so that any of the 966,000 eligible students that apply will receive funding.
Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota all made legislative changes to fund students directly, as opposed to government-run schools.
Another important trend we are witnessing this year is the plummeting public-school enrollment numbers. Nationally, public schools saw a 3% decline in overall enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020. This may not sound large, but overall enrollment was projected to increase by 2% over the course of 12 years, from 2016 to 2028. The bulk of that decline was among younger children, particularly pre-K and kindergarten students.
We will have to wait until official enrollment numbers are made public in the fall, but early warning signs suggest that enrollment will not bounce back this year.
For example, the New York City Department of Education projects a decline of almost 5% from last fall after seeing their numbers erode during this past school year.
In July, Chicago Public Schools, which have not conducted any in-person instruction since Feb. 2020, claimed that 100,000 out of their 340,000 students are “at-risk of not enrolling” this fall.
In August, Houston Independent School District claims that about 7% of students are missing, and that it’s “too soon to know if their efforts to re-enroll them are working.”
Private schools were much more likely to be open for in-person learning five days per week than public schools last year, and there were reports of waitlists for private schools quickly filling up. As the Delta variant continues to affect many parts of the country, almost 700 public schools have already closed or shifted to remote learning for quarantines that average nine days.
This likely explains why the number of children being homeschooled increased dramatically to over 5 million students, or 11% of households, in the fall of 2020. Some of the increase was driven by the growth of learning pods, and many of these new homeschoolers could be temporary as new polls suggest that parents prefer to return to a situation that feels something like “normal.”
As teachers unions make no effort to hide the fact that the education and well-being of children is an afterthought and the Food and Drug Administration has not yet authorized vaccines for those under 12 years of age, predictability is not likely to make a full return to the public school system this fall.
As such, state policymakers should work harder than ever to fund students directly, not institutions, enabling families to select learning environments that reflect their children’s health and education needs.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal