What’s going on with America’s public schools? Enrollment drops and absenteeism tell a dramatic tale

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What’s happening to America’s public school students? 

The drop in enrollment, plus chronic absenteeism, should be cause for great concern, or at least curiosity among parents, teachers, administrators, psychologists and many others across our nation.

The reasons for what’s going on are complicated — and critical to understand. 

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First, there’s the COVID piece of it. American public schools lost more than a million students from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, with enrollment falling from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students in that period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

It’s important to note that this occurred more frequently in high-poverty areas and urban centers across America during COVID. So the kids who could least afford to lose time in school lost the most, unfortunately.

Bill Bennett

William Bennett, former education secretary, addresses the Values Voter Summit at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Woodley Park, Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

But beyond that first year, there were substantial declines in public school enrollment during the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, a recent study from the Brookings Institute indicated. 

All told, between the school years of 2018-19 and 2021-22, about 12% percent of public elementary schools and 9% of middle schools experienced such a decline.

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“This is a significant change from before the pandemic, when about 5% of middle and elementary schools saw a 20% decline between 2015-2016 and 2018-2019,” the Brookings study found.

So we saw a decline before COVID, of about 5% or 6%. Then we saw this big decline afterward.

Think of it. Kids were out of school before COVID — and they continued to be out of school after COVID. 

There were declines before COVID, a radical decline during COVID — and now, after COVID, a continuing decline. 

This next data point is nothing less than striking.

The proportion of students attending schools that had high or extreme rates of chronic absenteeism more than doubled — from 26% during the 2017-2018 school year to 66% during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a recent report. The analysis of federal data was conducted by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and Attendance Works. 

So we saw low attendance during 2017-2018 — well before COVID — and then much lower attendance after COVID, in 2021-2022.

students in classroom

Many kids in public schools were out of school before COVID — and many have continued to be out of school after COVID.  (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier, File)

Of these numbers, people will say, “Oh, but that was a holdover from COVID in 2021-2022.”

Yet in 2022-2023, we didn’t recover. 

Habits were formed, in other words.

The pattern is revealing itself: There were declines before COVID, a radical decline during COVID — and now, after COVID, a continuing decline. 

On top of this, preliminary data show little improvement in the most recent school year. 

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The 11 states that have reported attendance data from the 2022-23 school year had a combined chronic absenteeism rate of 27.8%, down from 30% the previous year, according to the same source.

That’s a little better. But still — look at those numbers.

In the 2017-18 school year, 26% of students were enrolled in a school from which at least a fifth of the students were chronically absent. In 2021-22, that number jumped to 66% of students.

So absenteeism occurs long before COVID and is still significant today. 

Homeschooling 

Let’s look at homeschooling now because it’s important to do so.

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The number of homeschooled kids is increasing dramatically — we don’t know by exactly how much, according to a Washington Post analysis. 

Homeschooling

Homeschooling’s “surging popularity crosses every measurable line of politics, geography and demographics,” according to a recent analysis.  (iStock)

Homeschooling’s “surging popularity crosses every measurable line of politics, geography and demographics. The number of homeschooled kids has increased 373% over the past six years in the small city of Anderson, South Carolina; it also increased 358% in a school district in the Bronx.”

That is huge. 

Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools funded with public money — but students have left the traditional public schools in order to attend charters. 

So what’s going on?

Between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2021, public charter school enrollment more than doubled. 

Between the fall of 2010 and the fall of 2021, public charter school enrollment more than doubled, from 1.8 million to 3.7 million students — for an overall increase of 1.9 million students, according to the NCES.

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By contrast, the number of students attending traditional public schools decreased by 4%, or 2.0 million students, over the same period (from 47.4 million to 45.4 million students), the same source said.

Private schools

A little more than 4.73 million K-12 students were enrolled in private schools during the 2021-22 school year. 

That year was the second full one after the pandemic hit — and the first year when the vast majority of students attended school in person.

kids at school

“Why are students leaving traditional public schools in the U.S.? We don’t have very good numbers on that. There’s also more to the story.” (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

That number represents a slight bump from the 4.65 million students who attended private school in the 2019-20 school year, NCES said. 

What do we draw from this? 

There were some increases in the flow from the traditional public schools to the charters; some increases, relatively small, to the private schools — but a big increase in homeschooling.

Still, overall, why are students leaving traditional public schools? We don’t have very good numbers on that. 

There’s also more to the story. 

‘Scared of going out’

Aside from the numbers, both known and unknown, of enrollments, many American public school students are not showing up for class on a regular basis. 

My wife, Elayne Glover Bennett, is present in the D.C. schools on a regular basis as director of the Best Friends Foundation (she’s also co-author of “The Book of Virtues” with me). She has talked to hundreds of students, teachers and parents in recent weeks and months about what’s going on with America’s schools. 

kids classroom and Bill Bennett split

Many American public school students are not showing up for class on a regular basis, writes Bill Bennett, author of “The Book of Virtues: 30th Anniversary Edition” along with his wife, Elayne Glover Bennett. He is a Fox News contributor.  (iStock/Bill Bennett)

Why are so many students missing from class? She reports the following. 

A lot of young people are scared of going out and getting shot — for things like sneakers.

They’re also scared of bullying.

Kids very much need to be part of something in which they feel they are valued members.

In addition, they feel that there’s no point in going to school — that they won’t be missed if they’re not there.

On top of this, a lot of parents have checked out due to the demands they’re feeling, whether it’s because of single parenthood, jobs and work schedules, the challenges of life, and/or drug use.

Some have just surrendered in today’s brave new world. Thrown up their hands.

Many of their kids are missing school because they are not part of anything at their schools that sparks their engagement, their interest and their motivation.

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Kids — and we saw this during COVID — very much need to be part of something in which they feel they are valued members.

The glee club, the band, the football team — they need something that gives them a reason to go to school. 

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They also need someone there who is glad to see them and to indicate to them that they matter.

What does all of this mean for the children who need education the most today and who are increasingly missing from school? 

What does it matter to them and to us that they’re not there? 

A great deal for the future, I am afraid — again, for them and for us.

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