Education Exodus

School reopening time is almost upon us, and large numbers of parents have opted out of government-run schools. Over the past two school years, k-12 enrollment has declined by nearly 3 percent, or about 1.3 million students nationwide, according to a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute. Children who had gone to schools that were shuttered during the COVID panic have been much less likely to return to a traditional public school (TPS).

Big city school districts have seen massive exoduses. In New York City, there were over one million enrolled students in the 2019-20 school year, but the city anticipates just 760,439 children will be attending by the end of 2022-23. 

Chicago’s students are also leaving the plantation. There were about 400,000 attendees in 2010. That number dwindled to about 330,000 as of March 2021, with much bigger losses expected when updated enrollment numbers are released. Also, of Chicago’s 478 traditional public schools, almost one third are less than half full. Additionally, the 20 most abandoned schools in the Windy City are only 5 percent to 25 percent full.

Los Angeles schools are also bleeding children. Enrollment at district schools peaked in 2002‐03 at 747,000. But 19 years later that number has plunged to 430,000 students. The 2020-2021 school year was particularly jarring as attendance dropped by more than 27,000 students, a decline of close to 6 percent, a steeper slide than in any recent year. Even more shocking is that, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, nearly half of Los Angeles Unified students—more than 200,000 children—have been chronically absent this last school year, meaning they have missed at least 9 percent of the academic year.

While the hysterical response of most public schools to COVID is probably the most prominent cause for the sinking numbers in big cities, other reasons include a lower birthrate, families leaving for more tax-friendly states, too much sex, gender and critical race theory instruction, etc.

While children are abandoning the traditional public schools, are teachers bidding adieu also? According to recent reports, they are—or are about to—in droves. In February 2022, the National Education Association released the results of a poll which found that “55 percent of educators are thinking about leaving the profession earlier than they had planned.” More recently, the Rand Corp. reported that about one-third of teachers and principals said they were likely to leave their current job.

The mainstream media by-and-large has bought into the impending shortfall. Earlier this month, a Washington Post headline read, “Never seen it this bad: America faces catastrophic teacher shortage.” While claiming that we’re on the verge of an apocalypse, the writer is at least honest enough to admit that “no national database precisely tracks the issue.”

The shortage scenario is highly unlikely, however. As I wrote recently, teacher shortage hysteria has been with us since 1920. Additionally, “multiple studies of teacher turnover have not found evidence of unusually large attrition,” according to a new report by the Rand Corp. Yes, polling teachers about what they plan to do as opposed to what they actually do nets very different results. The Rand report also explains, “In short, we believe it is districts’ increase in number of staff that they seek to employ rather than an exodus from teaching that is straining the teacher labor market. More than three-quarters of surveyed district leaders indicated that they have expanded their substitute and/or regular teaching staff above prepandemic levels as of spring 2022.”

In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the teacher quit rate is about half that of private sector workers. Mike Antonucci also issues an important clarification. Included in the “Quits” column are those who left their present job to accept a different job. “So if a teacher leaves District A for a higher-paying job in District B, she quits and is counted in the statistics. If we examine quits without examining hires, we get only half the picture.”

So, while the predicted teacher shortage is unlikely to happen, disappearing students are a reality. As school boards across the country desperately try to figure out how to stanch the bleeding, the Los Angeles Unified School District has a plan. It has concocted a three-pronged strategy to deal with its chronic absenteeism. The district will tell their teachers to “pay special attention to student mental health” while “administrators will focus on forging solid relationships with parents.” It is unclear as to how much good these actions will do, but they are not unreasonable. The third component, however, is counterproductive . . . to put it mildly. The district asserts, “Schools will shift from punitive to restorative practices.”

Of all the well-meaning, but harmful fads that have become part of the scenario in our public schools, “restorative justice” and other similar non-consequences for willful defiance and worse, are probably the most destructive. Restorative justice makes life miserable for behaving students and teachers alike. It turns teachers into therapists and emphasizes “making the victim and offender whole” and involves “an open discussion of feelings.” Not surprisingly, the teachers unions—with their radical agenda front and center—are in favor of it, nonsensically claiming, “Building real relationships with students has to be top priority.”

Like so many progressive ideas, restorative justice is not evidence-based. As Max Eden reported in 2019, the tally of studies on the academic effects of restorative justice and similar forms of discipline reform on school districts are three negative (Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Philadelphia) and one null/positive (Chicago). Eden adds, “In terms of student surveys, my tally has four negative (NYC, Los Angeles, Washoe County, Seattle) and one negative/positive (Chicago). When it comes to local teacher surveys, I’ve seen eleven negative (Oklahoma City, Baton Rouge, Portland, Jackson, Denver, Syracuse, Santa Ana, Hillsborough, Madison, Charleston, Buffalo) and one positive (Pittsburgh).” (In the latter, teachers reported improved school safety and classroom management ability, but the students had another take. They thought their “teachers’ classroom management deteriorated, and that students in class were less respectful and supportive of each other; at a lower confidence interval, they reported bullying and more instructional time lost to disruption. And although restorative justice is billed as a way to fight the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ it had no impact on student arrests.”)

So as a result of the teacher union-led education establishment forcing schools to needlessly shut down during COVID, increasing dissatisfaction with highly inappropriate curricula, and a growing restorative justice movement as a way to stem a scary increase in student violence, children are fleeing the system.

Well worth noting is that unburdened by traditional public school mismanagement, charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling are thriving. Is anyone surprised?

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared at FrontPage Magazine.

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About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Kayla Ruble for The Washington Post via Getty Images