The Classroom is a Marketplace, too.

The recent news that fall enrollment in Georgia’s public schools was down more than 2% this year was a reminder that markets exist everywhere, even where you least expect them.

The October student count was the first done since the pandemic hit. Schoolhouses across the state were shuttered in March and in some places have yet to reopen. The traditional model of education was replaced by an emergency, remote learning model that most districts were poorly equipped to run.

It didn’t take families long to figure out just how poorly. They’ve been voting with their feet.

State data show the number of students in public schools is down 2.2% from last fall. That includes a 9.4% drop among kindergartners and a 12.8% decrease in pre-K – the grades in which remote learning has probably been the worst. There were smaller declines in grades 1-7, and a small uptick among upper grades.

That’s 1 in 50 students statewide leaving the public schools, and almost 1 in 10 among kindergartners.

All told, the decrease of almost 40,000 students could lead to an estimated $100 million loss of state funding. The Department of Education has indicated it will ask legislators for extra money to make up for that loss.

There’s some bureaucratic logic for you. People left the schools because they weren’t getting good services. And taxpayers are supposed to keep funding the schools as if none of that happened?

Keep in mind, this decline is above and beyond the usual number of families who choose private school, homeschooling or another alternative. These are families who looked at the service being offered, knew they would have to keep on paying school taxes regardless, and chose a different education for their children anyway – even though it surely has brought some kind of hardship onto many of them.

Exactly where all the students have gone is an important question that hasn’t been fully answered. But anecdotally, we know that private-school waiting lists have swelled. Homeschoolers have increased by about 20%. Enrollment at the state’s largest virtual charter schools – which have more skill and expertise at teaching remotely, and no geographic attendance boundaries – has grown sharply. Georgia Cyber Academy’s student population rose by more than 28%, and Georgia Connections Academy’s by almost 8%.

It is hard to overstate how remarkable this development is. Consider Atlanta Public Schools. In October 2010, a year after the first news reports indicating a rampant cheating scandal within the district, enrollment actually rose by almost 2%. This year, after students had gone seven months without seeing the inside of a classroom, it was the opposite.

Such big swings in enrollment tend not to happen, because there are few enterprises in America that are more monopolistic than our public schools. They take your tax money whether you send your kids to them or not – or, indeed, whether you even have kids. That allows them to offer a “free” education to all comers, which is a tough deal for most parents to turn down even if another school would provide a superior service.

In many cases, if the school down the street doesn’t meet a family’s standards, the family will simply move to a better zone or district. Only a relatively small number of families with either the means or the determination to pay for private school will do so.
But the fact that an additional 1 in 50 students left or didn’t enroll in their public school this year, despite all of the usual reasons for their families to send them there, is a testament both to how bad the situation has gotten and how badly families want other options.

Now, think about all the families who wanted a different option, but couldn’t afford it. The need for more education options for Georgia’s families, so they can take their children’s education dollars to the best provider available, has never been clearer.

That would take a market that already works for some, and make it work a whole lot better for all.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation:

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