With some parents angry at issues ranging from school closures to critical race theory, leaders fear impact on fall enrollment

Sarah Ronchak, right, a member of OpenSchoolsUSA, and her daughter, Paige Kinowski, who graduated in 2020, spoke to the state capital of Minnesota in December about the reopening. Ronchak plans to home teach his two other children this fall. (Courtesy of Sarah Ronchak)

Momentum may be gearing up for a full school reopening this fall, but some families are saying it’s too late.

“My daughter is never going to go back to public school,” said Michelle Walker of McMinnville, Ore., Outside of Portland. She took out a loan to move her fourth-grade MacKenzie to a private school and is working to mobilize families in reopening groups across the country to do something similar.

Nationally, public schools lost 1.5 million students last year, a drop of about 3% and the largest since the turn of the century, according to federal data. Much of this decline in enrollment is due to the fact that parents withheld their children from kindergarten one year. The question now is whether the deep frustration over distance learning and mask mandates, combined with recent outrage at critical race theory, might motivate more families to seek other options.

Experts say it’s too early to know for sure whether the drop in listings will continue, but some are seeing signs the downtrend is not over.

At Arlington Public Schools in Virginia, officials initially predicted that the 2,000 students who left the district last year would return this fall. But in May, board members said they weren’t so sure and were recalculating the budget based on a lower figure of 28,500 students, compared to nearly 30,000.

Some of those families who do not return may be home schooled, according to a recent article by the Home School Legal Defense Association, which suggests that the increase in this population seen last year will continue. And EdChoice polls have shown an increase in the number of home students from 8% in 2020 to 14% this year.

Michelle Walker, organizer of OpenSchoolsUSA, and her daughter MacKenzie. (Michelle Walker)

Walker, an organizer of Open Schools USA, is among those calling on parents to drop out of public schools. The reopening advocates’ volunteer network plans to announce a “strike” on Thursday, with parents pledging to homeschool or enroll their children in pods or private schools this fall. Across various platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and email, Walker said the network has reached about 180,000 participants. In Oregon alone, the group’s goal is to see 30 percent of the state’s more than 560,000 students withdraw by October, which would have a significant impact on public funding for education.

“Attacks on public education”

Whether the group has the power to keep its bold promise or not, one thing is clear: District leaders fear they will not catch up with last year’s enrollments as they see more and more students leaving for private schools. Some hope to attract families to return to school this fall, using outreach methods such as text messages and home visits. And public school advocates are concerned about the lingering impact of school board protests against critical race theory.

Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International, a professional organization that surveys the public every year on attitudes towards public schools, said parents value racial diversity in schools. A few months ago, he thought the outcry surrounding anti-racist efforts was going to end.

“Now I think the opposite,” he said, but added that there was no reliable data yet on what “the silent but reasonable majority really thinks” of the theory.

New data from California voters shows more than half of parents feel positive about public schools in general and even more about their local schools, with 60% giving them an A or B. But Bruce Fuller, an education researcher and in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, said “a slice of parents still seem angry at the reluctance of union leaders to reopen schools last winter, even after the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] gave his OK.

He predicted further increases in private and private school enrollment by August, especially if districts do not allow virtual or more personalized options for families who prefer it.

The California survey did not specifically ask about critical race theory – a legal argument that racism is ingrained in American systems and institutions. But Democrats and Republicans were divided over whether schools should devote more time to lessons on racism and inequality.

OpenSchoolsUSA formed in November on the issue of reopening. In March, organizers held rallies marking one year of the pandemic in at least 50 cities. But Eileen Chollet, a relative from Fairfax, Va., Who interacts with Walker’s group via Facebook, said she wondered if he had enough organizing power to “run a national campaign.”

But Sarah Ronchak, a parent from Elk River, Minnesota, and another organizer of OpenSchoolsUSA, said their efforts were part of a larger movement away from traditional schools. “It will definitely take off,” she said. “However, it may take another year in public school for the people on the fence to really step forward.”

Ronchak, a full-time youth basketball referee, said she got involved with the group because “distance learning was an absolute nightmare” for her autistic son. And when he returned to school in February, he was bullied for not wearing a mask even though he had an exemption, she said. Minnesota lifted its statewide mask mandate, but some local jurisdictions did not. She said she would probably be homeschooled this fall.

Walker said the group included members from all political backgrounds, but their concerns broadened to include potential COVID-19 vaccination requirements and universal use of masks, issues that more conservatives have raised themselves to. opposites. Nonetheless, she added, they shy away from the term “Trumppers”. The leaders ran a GoFundMe campaign to build their website, but otherwise the group has no outside funders. Walker spends his own money on flyers, posters and graphics.

Some of the group’s organizers are also active in No Left Turn, which has filed a lawsuit over practices in schools related to critical race theory. Founder Elana Yaron Fishbein has become a leading voice on Fox News, saying schools are trying to indoctrinate children and local union members are behind many protests at school board meetings.

“Parents want children to learn about racism. We don’t want it to be necessarily taught the way it is, ”said Walker, a Democrat. “If you mean the bad and the ugly, you have to say the good and the beautiful. “

National Parents Union president Keri Rodrigues said OpenSchoolsUSA had sought advice from her group in the past, but was not affiliated. Rodrigues, however, agrees that more families could consider other options this fall.

“We have seen a nationwide failure of our public education system,” she said. “I would expect to see a percentage of parents say, ‘I’ve actually found something that works better for my kids.’ “

The most recent National Parents Union survey shows more than 40% of parents would still choose online learning or a hybrid model this fall, but the survey did not specifically ask about leaving public schools .

Walker’s hope is that if districts see more enrollment losses, they’ll pay more attention to the needs of parents.

“After their numbers have dropped drastically, our hope is to have a meeting where we can negotiate the conditions for registration,” she said. “It’s crazy that no one has represented our children throughout the decision-making process that has directly affected them.”

When RAND Corp. asked superintendents over the winter, health issues related to COVID-19, late kindergarten and opposition to virtual education were the main reasons for the loss of enrollment, not “anti- politically motivated “.[critical race theory] reasons, ”said Heather Schwartz, Principal Investigator at RAND. But she added: “the subject is evolving rapidly”.

Khalilah Harris, acting vice president for K-12 policy at the Center for American Progress, left, called protests against critical race theory a marginal problem, but added that “the fringe can become current with the right message ”. However, she doesn’t expect “large amounts of communities to move their children to a private school and explain it because they don’t want students to learn difficult but precise American history.”

Some advocates of face-to-face learning have never strayed from their main issue. They include Chollet, a member of Fairfax County Open Schools. The Fairfax District lost 11,000 students last year, but expects to recover most of them this fall.

Some partisan Democrats tend to “portray all pro-open schools parents as a right-wing astroturf,” she said. “I won’t deny that the reopening groups are probably redder than the surrounding areas, but Fairfax is one of the bluest areas in the country.”


This article was published in partnership with The 74. Subscribe to the 74 newsletter here.


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