The Shifting Stage towards Non-Public Education
COVID, politics, and Covid-politics spurred divisions and antagonisms between people and certain institutions, including K-12 education. As a result, education in the future will be different and likely more complex as we exit these tumultuous times into a new normal.
Over the past few years, K-12 education systems have been front and center in several ways, and not for the better. Children were forced to learn from home, some would say, for far too long, since for many youngsters, that meant no learning at all. Many less-motivated kids will never recover from this 1+ year gap in in-person learning.
Over the same period, elements of the K-12 curriculum also came to light, in most cases because parents were looking over the shoulders of their learn-from-home kids. Curricula related to sexual orientation and re-interpretations of history seemed to rise to the top. “Wokeness” issues, usually the province of higher ed, made their way into the K-12 sphere during this period.
In response, parents started protesting at school board meetings, voting in entire new boards, and often pulling their kids out of school completely.
There’s no doubt in my mind that our news media tends to blow these and other kinds of issues out of proportion and elevate isolated or limited incidents to the status of trends. In the long run, parents abandoning the public school system has become a significant trend and one we’ll continue to monitor.
Parental activism has died down somewhat, but the disenrollment numbers are considerable. Private, charter and at-home schooling are now more popular education options than ever. And to make matters worse, our public school systems were already facing decreasing enrollments due to declining birth rates and slowing immigration.
Altogether, the situation is exacerbated by a host of new cultural forces to the point where this will be considered the turning point for education, as the long-term viability of public education is further scrutinized.
The Declining Numbers
The Department of Education reported a decline of 1.6 million students in public schools and public charter schools between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020.
There was a partial bounce back after that. An Education Next survey found that these declines in enrollment partially reversed in 2021, but the percentage of students in district schools compared to the alternatives still remains several percentage points below 2019/2020 levels.
The proportion of students receiving private, charter, and homeschool education have all increased since 2020. The share for private schools increased from 8% to 10%; for charter schools, it expanded from 5% to 7%; for homeschool, the share edged up from 6% to 7%.
Again, it’s not a tsunami but a significant trend. And it’s a trend that parents, local governments, and policymakers need to plan for. They’d better think differently as they look to reshape the future of public education.
Interestingly, according to some sources, support for school choice in general, including charter schools and vouchers for private education, declined during 2020 and then rose as the pandemic receded. This perhaps was an indication that the underlying threat to public schools extends beyond Covid to longer-term concerns related to academic rigor and curriculum.
To survive, though, public school systems will need to take on some of the characteristics of alternative schools and even merge elements of those institutions into their own. We see this already happening, for example, with public charter schools that focus on STEM or foreign language immersion.
The opposite will also be true, and the private education alternative institutions will embrace some of the programs taught in private schools. They’ll purchase, for example, certain intellectual property of public schools, such as a teaching guide, a semester curriculum, or even access to specific classes. Similarly, home-schooled students have the option to dial into a public-school STEM class for a fee, or their parents will purchase STEM course workbooks or semester lesson plans.
Some religious private schools may want to maintain their own teachers and coursework for humanities, literature, and even some of the sciences, but they may choose to work with a local public school for access to a particular algebra teacher (either online or in-person) specifically for an 8th or 9th-grade math class, as talented teachers become increasingly hard to find.
Larger private schools will maintain many of their own extracurricular programs, from band to sports to drama, but smaller private and charter schools, as well as home school parents, will have the opportunity to sign their students up for these opportunities at nearby public schools – again, for an agreed upon fee.
An Issue of Fairness
Many readers will undoubtedly point out that taxpayers publicly finance public schools – and that includes the parents who choose to purchase an alternative education experience in the form of private schools, charter schools, or home schools. Should they have to pay to access these public school programs that would have been free to them if their children went to those schools?
The road to capitalist public education will need to cross those bridges, and local policymakers and voters will decide what’s fair and what’s not. But if public schools price their services to these alternative schools and families fairly, based on true incremental costs, it shouldn’t be a major issue.
We’re less a society of one-size-fits-all than ever before. We’re now far less inclined to accept the status quo. Our K-12 education system will reflect that in the future as schools develop more options than ever for parents who want to mix and match the ideal combination of educational systems, courses, and activities for their kids. Public schools will need to keep up if they are to survive.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll dive into a number of scenarios that I feel will begin to redefine education completely.
We’re entering a world that will require higher caliber people to make it work, and it is preposterous for us to think our existing systems can suddenly start producing better results.
Each of us has only one body, one mind, and one life, and whatever we do to increase our skills and capabilities will make each of us more valuable on the world stage.
With the help of AI, people in the future will view themselves as being in a constant state of improvement. This means that over the coming decades, we will become exponentially more fixable – trainable, repairable, improvable, and even reinventable.
It will no longer be about who we are today but who we have the potential to become. And tomorrow’s AI engineers will take on one of the world’s most important missions, which is to make that happen.