Offering choices will not hurt public schools

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This article was written by Kyle Wingfield of The Brunswick News on September 27, 2021.

We know that, when presented with new options, many people will make a change. The pandemic has made that clear, from some people embracing remote work to others seeking entirely new career paths.

Why would it be any different with education?

It isn’t. The data tell us so.

As you’ve no doubt read before, public school enrollment declined last fall at the sharpest rate in years. Some of that drop comes from parents choosing to keep their children out of kindergarten, which isn’t compulsory in Georgia, if classes weren’t going to be held in person. But that wasn’t the whole story.

We have more of the story now thanks to a new review of enrollment data across the country by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The report, titled “Voting with Their Feet” and released this past week, shows that district (or traditional) public schools in the 42 states with available data lost 1.45 million students between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. That represents a decrease of 3.3%.

Public charter schools, meanwhile, gained 237,000 students, or 7.1%.

Put another way, gains in public charter schools offset about one-sixth of the district-school losses. Otherwise, overall declines in public school enrollment likely would have been even higher. (The report does not track specific movement among district schools, charter schools and other types of education, such as private schools and homeschooling.)

In Georgia, the numbers were somewhat different. District school enrollment fell by only 2.8%, but public charter schools gained an even larger share than they did nationally, at 9%.

Even more instructive, charters approved by the state commission rose by more than 16%, while locally approved charters in Georgia gained about 3%.

There are several lessons here for Georgia’s lawmakers as they consider whether to expand educational options further, including more equitable funding for charter schools but also new and expanded types of private school choice.

First, the state charter schools had a greater degree of autonomy than locally approved charters to decide whether to offer virtual, in-person or hybrid classes. At a time when there was no consensus among parents about whether their children should be back face to face with their teachers and fellow students, state charter schools offered them real choices — whatever their preference might have been. Of particular note, enrollment at the state’s largest charter school, Georgia Cyber Academy, grew by 28.7%.

These state charters were able to grow so quickly only because they received special allowances to increase their capacity due to the pandemic and heightened demand. Locally approved charters did not. Traditional public schools don’t need a special allowance to increase enrollment.

Flexibility, in other words, was key to the ability of our public charter schools to satisfy parents’ demand for different options when their circumstances changed.

While state lawmakers often defer to local officials to make these kinds of decisions, there is no control that’s more local than that exercised by parents about their own children’s education. Should lawmakers revisit the question of how much discretion to allow districts over their largely autonomous public charter schools, it would serve their constituents well for them to keep that in mind.

For too long, money has been an excuse not to give more options to more families. The notion we would defund public education by extending options was never true: In the case of charters, we’re still talking about public schools; in the case of private choice, the data clearly show schools save more in forgone expenses than they lose in revenue when a child leaves for another type of education.

But with an extra $6 billion-plus in federal emergency funding flowing into school districts over the past year or so, it’s especially untrue now. Finances should be off the table when lawmakers decide whether to expand options. The needs of families — illustrated by their own behavior during the pandemic — should be front and center.