Public Schools Have Lost Over a Million Students. Here’s Where They’re Going.

Public Schools Have Lost Over a Million Students. Here’s Where They’re Going.

Rising enrollments in choice schools, particularly in private schools, not only provide evidence of a continuing school-choice wave sweeping the country, but also demonstrate how these learning environments will continue to be an important part of the United States’ educational fabric.

Public schools in the United States have lost over a million students in the past three years, according to the Wall Street Journal. Where these students went, and why they left, says a great deal about the future of American schooling.

Private Christian schools have absorbed many of these students. In the 2022–23 academic year, schools in the Association of Christian Schools International recorded 35 percent higher enrollment than at the start of the pandemic, according to a new ACSI study. Similar kinds of schools have also seen dramatic increases. For the 2021–22 school year, the National Catholic Educational Association reported a 3.8 percent nationwide enrollment increase, the largest in NCEA’s history. Charter-school enrollment increased by 7 percent during the first year of the pandemic and has held steady since, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. While homeschool “enrollment” doubled during the pandemic, no other form of education saw significant increases — especially not public schools.

Enrollment growth in Christian schools over the past three years reverses the trend in declining enrollment from the preceding years. And it was not just a pandemic-era trend. Attendance at private Christian schools continues to increase even as district public schools have reopened for in-person instruction, while the number of charter-school students and homeschooled students declined in 2022.

Why have private Christian schools benefited in this environment? One explanation is how they responded to students’ learning needs during the pandemic. Public schools that remained the most remote for the longest experienced the greatest enrollment losses, according to an American Enterprise Institute study. Meanwhile, 84 percent of Christian schools returned to in-person instruction “much sooner” than local district schools, according to the ACSI report. Christian schools that reopened earlier have added an average of around 80 students since the start of the pandemic.

Motivated by a desire to serve their families, Christian schools sought creative solutions for getting students back on campus. “Early on, it was clear from seeing our kids struggle emotionally, socially, and academically through distance learning that getting kids back on campus was critical,” said Brian Bell, head of school at Redlands Christian School in southern California. “It required us to be creative and brave with our solutions to get back in person.” Redlands Christian School now educates over 1,400 students, the highest level in its century-long existence.

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