The School Edition

Enrollment. Costs. Politics. Vibes.

To the audience:

It feels like we’ve been covering some of the major trends in education a lot lately, and I wanted to put together a full edition on schools so you can get a lot of context at the core of what’s happening.

Every so often, we plan to write more focused editions to give you a look at big trends in major issues - maybe cities, states, or the economy. If you like or hate this, or have ideas, we’re all ears and would love to hear from you. I’m not sure of exactly how often we will do this for now, but probably not more than about once-a-month.

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About 8 in 10 American students attend traditional K-12 public schools, but enrollment is trending down.

Pew Research Center: Between fall 2011 and fall 2021, the number of students in public schools fell by roughly 4%, from 47.2 million to 45.4 million.

Amid the drop in enrollment, schools have been struggling with chronic absenteeism, pandemic learning loss and distracted students.

Chronic absenteeism: The share of students missing 10% or more of the school year has doubled since before the pandemic.

Learning loss: During the pandemic, the average public school student in grades 3-8 lost half a year of learning in math and a quarter year in reading.

  • According to the Education Recovery Scorecard, schools managed to regain just 20-30% of lost learning in the first year, with no additional progress in the following three to four years.

  • In 2022, only 26% of eighth graders were proficient in math, down from 33% in 2019.

  • Less than one-third (32%) of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2022, a down from 34% in 2019.

Behavior: Post-pandemic, over 70% of educators reported an increase in behavioral disruptions since 2019-20, according to a survey by the educational consulting firm EAB.

  • 72% of high school teachers say cellphones are a major distraction in their classrooms, per Pew Research Center.

While traditional public school enrollment is falling, home schooling and charter schools are thriving.

Home schooling: Home schooling is the fastest-growing form of education in the U.S, according to a Washington Post analysis.

  • Estimates suggest there are now between 1.9 million and 2.7 million home-schooled children in the U.S.

  • While home schooling rates have dipped slightly from their pandemic peak, they remain higher than pre-pandemic levels in most states.

Charter schools: In the last 10 years, charter school enrollment grew from 2.1 million students in 2011 to nearly 3.7 million in 2021.

  • That means the share of total students in charter schools went from 4% to 7%.

The school choice movement has picked up a ton of momentum in recent years.

Since 2022, 146 pro-school choice bills have been introduced in 17 states.

  • Eight states enacted laws in 2023 to implement "universal school choice.”

  • EdChoice data shows a million students used private education vouchers in 2024, double the amount from four years ago.

  • 29 states currently offer some form of school choice program (education savings accounts, traditional vouchers or tax-credit scholarship).

Public schools have become the site of a heated political debate over classroom lessons on race and gender ideology.

Critical race theory: A number of states have passed laws cracking down on the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools.

Gender ideology: Parents and educators have sometimes clashed over LGBT topics, gender ideology lessons and the amount of information schools are required to disclose to parents about their children.

  • In June, California's Senate approved a bill barring schools from requiring staff to inform parents about students' gender identity or pronoun changes.

  • At least 11 states have passed laws banning LGBT discussions in public schools.

Also: Teachers unions' political donations increased from $4.3 million in 2004 to over $32 million in 2016, according to the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets.

  • Since 1990, at least 94% of their donations to candidates and parties have gone to Democrats.

Public school costs have spiked as administrative hires have surged and teacher pay has stagnated.

The U.S. spends more than almost any other country on education.

Inflation-adjusted K-12 education costs have steadily increased.

Funding per student has increased dramatically, but it’s not being spent on teacher salaries, which (when you adjust for inflation) have plateaued for decades.

Administrative staff hiring is greatly outpacing growth of teachers and students.

As universities grapple with high-profile cultural and political controversies, polling shows Americans’ confidence in higher education continues to fall.

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