January 16, 2021

AWOL: America’s traditional K-12 learners are leaving, costing schools hundreds of millions in their wake

Our traditional K-12 students are begging out of attendance at record numbers, often with no notification whatsoever. It’s a trend that began years ago but has accelerated at blinding speed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, 27 percent of America’s learners chose alternatives to traditional public schooling including charter schools (6 percent), private schools (10 percent), and homeschool or unaccounted for (11 percent). In 2020, the latest figures from Learning Counsel research now show that 33.6 percent of American school-aged children no longer attend traditional public schooling. Currently, 7 percent are in charters, 11 percent are in private schools and a skyrocketing 16 percent are in homeschooling or unaccounted for.

2020 saw a landslide of change in school attendance with the average additional defection (to any alternative) away from traditional public schooling now at 3.6 percent per district. Many districts are experiencing much more. The estimate of 33.6 percent of students nationwide now opted out across the three alternatives (charter, private or homeschool) is very conservative. This is because qualitative analysis of district enrollment loss includes expectations by many that students will come back after the pandemic, making their current figures of 5-15 percent losses appear to be a temporary situation. Also, many say that in the upper grades (10 – 12) they see large numbers of drop-outs due to family income needs, particularly in low-income and minority areas where older students have had to get jobs or care for younger siblings, getting so far behind that their hopes of graduation have become nonexistent.

In a time when future financial concerns are causing districts enormous worry, enrollment loss is taking a big bite out of their funding here in the present. Although no national data is yet available, snapshots of state and local data show a very ugly picture.

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