School Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on K-12 Education
Last week, Tyton Partners released a groundbreaking report — the first of three based on a nationwide longitudinal study titled “School Disrupted: The Impact of COVID-19 on Parent Agency and the K-12 Ecosystem.” The study digs deep into the public and private school enrollment declines reported around the country over the past year and focuses on not only where students went when they left their school, but why and how their families made those decisions. The report explores an important factor throughout this phenomenon called “parent agency,” which is a parent’s ability to pursue changes in their child’s education when they believe change is warranted.
Louisiana certainly was not shielded from the effects of COVID-19 on K-12 schooling and saw nearly 17,000 students leave the public school system, particularly in the elementary school grades. These findings inform and prompt a deeper analysis of Louisiana’s K-12 ecosystem and the agency that Louisiana families have in meeting the needs of their children.
While the main finding from the Tyton report isn’t unfortunately all that surprising, it is still staggering as the data confirms our worst fears: Parent agency is a function of family income. Nearly 15 percent of survey respondents reported making considerable shifts in their child’s education (50 percent higher than pre-pandemic levels), at a cost of nearly $20 billion on an annualized basis. But it was who made the shifts and how that revealed the haves and have-nots when it came to parent agency.
Higher income parents engaged in alternate school activities at significantly higher rates than lower-income parents, switching their child’s school, obtaining in-person learning, enrolling in a non-public school as the primary form of education, participating in supplemental learning, and/or leveraging out-of-school activities and resources. Lower-income families did so at lower rates and reported spending less to support quality in those options. Limited awareness of and access to alternative and emerging learning models also significantly hindered the agency of lower-income parents.
Nationally, public and private school enrollment declined by about 2.6 million students, while charter schools, home schools, learning pods, and microschools saw a net increase in student population. While the Louisiana Department of Education has reported impacts on enrollment in the public school system, little has been reported with regard to private schools or homeschooling, nor has much attention been devoted to what local child welfare and attendance officers have uncovered over the past year. Given Louisiana’s large network of private and parochial schools and lenient regulations for homeschooling, we would expect to see a corresponding increase in enrollment in private school or approved home study enrollment, where some families have begun experimenting with learning pods and microschools as the primary method of instruction. We should hope so, because aside from those options, the only other likely scenario would be truancy, a much bigger problem.
There’s a lot we don’t know about how the K-12 ecosystem across Louisiana has changed over this past year, and taxpayers deserve to have those numbers analyzed and reported. We do know, however, that the same inequities in parent agency exist in Louisiana, possibly even worse than the Tyton report found nationally. That’s why lawmakers and governors have enacted programs specifically designed to empower low-income families with that agency, including charter schools, state-funded scholarships or “vouchers,” tax credits to non-profit organizations that grant scholarships to students, and tuition assistance for families of special needs children. The problem is that there’s not enough of them, and the state doesn’t do enough to make parents aware of innovative, quality non-traditional educational options.
There are strong foundations from which to build a statewide system that actively works to increase parent agency — not only existing school choice programs, but also the state’s recent work to identify science-based early literacy strategies, coordinate teacher-led reviews and ratings of curriculum, and build a network of approved private providers of core and supplemental education services. All of that work should be used to build the capacity of parents to make quality, financially possible decisions about their children’s educations, whether through existing school options or through new innovative approaches like learning pods, microschools, education savings accounts, and public school choice.
It’s good news that Louisiana is beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic, and only time will tell if recent changes in our state K-12 ecosystem will remain. One thing is certain — parents won’t soon forget the prolonged impact this pandemic had on their kids’ educations and their ability to do something about it. Their demand for options has never been stronger, and Louisiana’s policymakers and education leaders would do well to listen and respond.
Daniel Erspamer is the CEO of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans, Louisiana.