Where did all the students go?

Chalkbeat Indiana reported that enrollment dropped by almost 15,000 students this fall in Indiana public schools. I wrote that the loss to school districts was over 17,000 students. It gets worse. Judging by recent state data, enrollment in local public schools fell by over 24,000 students.

Where did they go? Several thousand moved to online schools, either virtual charter schools or online programs operated by other school districts. Some families apparently opted out of enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. A majority of the missing students are probably home-schooling.

In terms of state funding, the loss of 24,000 students translates to a loss of nearly $150 million for public schools in the 2020-21 school year. It’s almost as much money as the schools lose to Indiana’s voucher program, which provides tuition funding for students who attend private schools.

All because of COVID-19, which prompted some families to keep their children home from school and others to enroll their kids in online programs rather than send them to school in a pandemic.

Where did I get 24,000? Using Indiana Department of Education data, I noted the difference between the total enrollment reported in fall 2019 and fall 2020. To eliminate the effect of online-only programs, I excluded them from the calculation in both years.

Overall, charter schools increased their enrollment this fall, according to state data. Some new charter schools opened, and others added grade levels. But the big factor was that virtual charter schools, in particular Indiana Connections Academy, grew by about 1,600 students.

Meanwhile, statewide online programs operated by two public school districts, Clarksville and Union School Corp., saw their enrollment grow by about 4,000 students. Most of those students left their local school districts to enroll in the Clarksville and Union online programs.

Another factor is that families probably delayed or skipped enrolling their 5-year-olds in kindergarten, which is not required in Indiana. Figures from the Indiana Department of Education show that statewide kindergarten enrollment in public and charter schools fell by 5,651 from fall 2019 to fall 2020, a decline of 7.2%.  Several large school districts started the year in August with online-only classes, which were sure to be challenging for young children learning their letters and numbers. You can imagine that parents would think, “What the heck, kindergarten isn’t required, let’s just wait a year.”

But transfers to online schools and the decrease in kindergarten students account for only about half of the overall decline in public school enrollment. Some students may have switched to private schools, but the evidence, so far, doesn’t support a public-to-private shift. The number of students who received state-funded vouchers for private school tuition declined from fall 2019, according to state data.

Where did the other students go? Chances are most are being homeschooled, which is largely unregulated and often unreported in Indiana. The question is, will they return to their local public schools when the pandemic is over, or is this a long-term shift in schooling?

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