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When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, homeschooling took off. This wasn’t just kids receiving school instruction at home, but real homeschooling, in which parents took charge of their children’s education.
After the initial shock of the pandemic, enrollment in private schools began to grow, as most re-opened for in-person instruction while many public schools remained remote. Private education flourished because it was responsive to families’ needs.
Unfortunately, that surge appears to be coming to an end. But, in many states, the fundamental problem with how we pay for public education is also coming to an end. The forced funding of public schools, rather than allowing money to follow kids to options their families choose, is on the decline.
The Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom has tracked private schools going in and out of business since March 2020, when COVID-19 prompted government lockdowns of businesses, schools and more. Lockdowns initially produced a spate of private school liquidations. But in the 2020-21 school year, we started seeing a slowdown in schools shuttering and an upswing in openings. And in 2021-22, openings greatly outpaced closings.
This was consistent with data on private school enrollment that we and others collected showing private schools losing students early in the pandemic, then largely gaining them.
The explanation for what we saw was clear. Early on, private schools, which often operate on thin margins to keep prices low and compete with “free” public schools, struggled to survive the country’s brief but deep economic downturn. Once allowed to resume in-person education, most private schools did so while most public schools did not. Many new families were willing to pay tuition for in-person teaching.
With public schools generally back to normal, that COVID enrollment bump seems to be ending and private education appears to be receding. Since August 2022, we have seen private schools going out of business outpace openings, with 46 announced closures to only 29 openings, including the pending closure of 12 New York City Catholic schools.
Our count is based on media reports, so it is possible we are missing openings and closings that have not generated stories in the press. The trend, though, is consistent with enrollment reports from Catholic schools — the biggest single sector of private schools — which saw a 3.7 percent increase in the 2021-22 school year, but only 0.3 percent growth in 2022-23.
It is also consistent with homeschooling reports. In Virginia, for instance, homeschooling numbers rose from 38,282 in the 2019-20 school year to 59,638 in 2020-21, but fell to 55,749 in 2021-22, and 50,713 in 2022-23. In Pennsylvania, homeschool enrollment jumped from 25,979 in 2019-20 to 41,483 in 2020-21, then dropped to 39,846 in 2021-22. Numbers for the current school year are not yet available.
This was predictable. While private options were often a godsend during the pandemic, families that used them had to pay twice for education: once in taxes for often closed public schools and a second time for in-person education they believed their kids needed. This was not sustainable for many people.
The good news, thanks in part to the lessons of COVID-19, is that we are seeing an explosion in educational freedom that we have always needed. Six states have passed universal education savings account programs since mid-2022, which means every family is eligible to use public education dollars for a variety of education expenses. Several more states have new or expanded — but not universal — choice programs.
These programs do not deliver full per-pupil funding that public schools get, so they do not completely level the playing field. But they are a big improvement over no family control of education money.
We can and should celebrate this for its immediate impact on private education — supporting the private schools and homeschooling options that were there for families when public schools were not. But more important, these programs start to rectify a fundamental problem with our education system: it massively favors government schools over all the other options diverse families might want.
During the pandemic, many families accepted paying twice for education because only private options gave them what they needed. But families should not have to pay twice. They should always have the power to choose where the money to educate their children goes.
Neal McCluskey directs the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom where Colleen Hroncich is a policy analyst.
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