Private school enrollment continues decline during pandemic

Stephanie Koons
July 30, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was widespread discussion that many parents would take their children out of public schools and enroll them in private schools that offered more in-person instruction rather than remote-only options. However, according to Ed Fuller, associate professor of education (educational leadership) in Penn State’s College of Education, there actually was a decrease in private school enrollment in Pennsylvania during the 2020-21 school year that is in keeping with a longer-term decline in the state.

“One of the findings is that students did not enroll in private schools as many people said they would in the fall,” said Fuller, director of the Center for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis (CEEPA). “Enrollment has continued to decline and will probably continue to decline in the foreseeable future.”

Ed Fuller

Ed Fuller

IMAGE: Steve Tressler/Vista Pro Studios

In a recently released policy brief, “Student enrollment in Pennsylvania during the Covid pandemic,” Fuller reported that he found no evidence that students transitioned from public schools to private schools during the pandemic. He found declines for private school enrollment in Pennsylvania across all grade levels except for a 2% increase in first grade, and the percentage decline in private schools was greater than or equal to the percentage decline in public schools, depending on which schools were included in the analysis.

“I wanted to find out if people were actually enrolling their kids in private schools and the data suggests that just didn’t happen in Pennsylvania,” Fuller said.

According to the policy brief, private school enrollment in Pennsylvania fell 1.5% from 2019-20 to 2020-21. The pandemic drop was consistent with a long-standing decline in the state and was in fact slightly lower than the dip from the prior year. However, according to a recent news report, those numbers may be deceiving since the state’s private school enrollment data included 13,000 students who attend a for-profit, online high school called Penn Foster. If one disregards that data, private school enrollment actually fell 7.1% during the pandemic — a larger decline than at public schools.

Because private schools generally have much smaller enrollments than public schools, Fuller said it was easier for private institutions to conduct socially distanced classes in person. Indeed, there were reports of schools such as St. Pio Regional Catholic School in South Philadelphia that offered full-time, face-to-face education with little incidence of COVID-19 transmission.

However, Fuller said, those opportunities weren’t enticing enough to parents who may have been struggling economically during the pandemic and opted to save money by enrolling their children in charter schools — independent public schools established and operated under a charter from the local school board.

In keeping with parents’ desire to educate their children remotely during the pandemic, Fuller said, there was a distinct migration toward cyber charter schools that operate entirely online. There was approximately a 2,000-student increase in cyber charter enrollment in kindergarten as well as in grades one through six, an increase of around 1,700 students in grades seven through nine, and between a 200 and 1,000 student increase in grades 10 through 12. Overall, there was a 59% increase in cyber charter enrollment.

The decline in private school enrollment in Pennsylvania likely reflects a nationwide trend, Fuller said. While elite private schools with extremely high tuitions are probably maintaining enrollment, he added, smaller and religious schools continue to lose students. A lot of private schools in Pennsylvania are Catholic schools, Fuller said, and in addition to the U.S. becoming an overall less religious society, issues stemming from child sex-abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church have “turned some people off.”

In the policy brief, Fuller reports that the majority of student enrollment loss in both private and public schools was concentrated in the earlier grades, that is, kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. This finding suggests that many families simply kept younger children at home during the pandemic, he said, since they could easily hold off on starting school without interrupting their children’s academic progress. In addition, Fuller said he found that the rate of children not enrolling in kindergarten was higher in underfunded communities.

“If you’re in an underfunded area, the district doesn’t have the resources to offer a good virtual setting,” he said.

Despite the growing popularity of charter schools, Fuller said, the reality of cyber charter school performance doesn’t always match the hype. His own analysis has shown that nearly 60% of the students who enroll in cyber charter schools return to some type of public school within two years.

Future research in this area, he added, could focus on determining how many students return to public schools from cyber charters and how parents navigate the dilemma of enrolling their children in kindergarten without an approved COVID-19 vaccine for young children.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 09, 2021