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Can public school enrollment rebound from pandemic, curriculum culture clash?

May 24, 2022


More public schools across the U.S. have empty hallways and classrooms. In 2021, the National Center for Education Statistics reported a 3-percent dip in the estimated 51.1 million students enrolled in public schools nationwide in 2019-20. 

The pandemic is not the lone cause of public education enrollment

While most would blame the pandemic for declining enrollment, education experts said multiple factors have pushed students away from the classroom

“We’ve definitely seen an exodus from public schools over the last two years,” said Neal McCluskey, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank. 

McCluskey, a former teacher, has been tracking the latest culture war playing out in school districts. 

Parents confront school districts leaders over curriculum

“You need to wake up,” exclaimed a parent at an Osceola County, Florida, school board meeting on the topic of race and gender issues being taught in the classroom. “I don’t know what hold people have on you!”

“There’s been major exiting of public schools because of non-COVID issues, like what’s called Critical Race Theory or LGBTQ+ issues,” McCluskey said. 

In particular, parents’ concerns have focused on teachers discussing race, gender, and sexuality in the classroom.

“They’re unhappy about it, but we haven’t seen clear evidence that the exodus from public schools have been driven by that,” McCluskey said.

Homeschooling on the rise 

According to a Census Bureau survey, about 5.4 percent of school-aged kids were in homeschool during the 2020-21 school year. By year’s end, those numbers had more than doubled to 11.6 percent, and they don’t include families who opted to enroll their children in a charter or private school. 

States cut K-12 funding

Due to declining headcount, states have begun to slash K-12 education funds, requiring fewer teachers and school closures.

Meanwhile, the debate over who controls the curriculum taught in classrooms has continued.

“It looks like a lot of this will end up being battles that are fought in school districts,” McCluskey said. “So, not that people will leave, but they’re going to stay in the school district and fight to try and get whatever it is they don’t like out of the curriculum.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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