Where Have All the Children Gone?

For concerned parents and, by extension, Georgia taxpayers, the precise number of students attending the state’s public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic should matter a great deal: Those numbers impact the state budget. 

Some parents choose to bypass Georgia’s traditional public schools in favor of alternative methods of education, including public charter schools, private schools and homeschooling. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began its U.S. spread early in 2020, has added to those numbers. 

Tracking those students, however, is difficult. 

Student Rolls Decline

Georgia Department of Education (GADOE) officials announced at the state Legislature’s joint budget hearing on January 19 that public school enrollment for the state was about 36,000 students fewer than last year. The decrease was predominantly in the lower grades – Kindergarten, pre-K and first grade – according to the GADOE

“It appears many of these students were not enrolled and may have been home-schooled,” GADOE Chief Financial Officer Rusk Roam told legislators, adding that the department anticipated these students would “return to public schools.”

Total pre-K-12 enrollment in October 2020 was 1,729,966. In March 2020 – before COVID-19 shuttered in-person learning – enrollment was 1,760,739. In October 2019 it was 1,769,621. Fall kindergarten enrollment dropped nearly 10%, at 114,444 in October 2020 compared with 126,758 in March. Pre-K enrollment, at 53,626 in March, dropped nearly 19%, to 43,648 in October. First-grade enrollment, which was 127,345 in March, was down 3.6%, at 122,684 in October.

Education advocates have suggested several reasons for the enrollment decline, including difficulties some younger students have attending and learning in an online environment, and working parents seeking options for their children during the work day. Some families have opted to defer kindergarten until schools reopen or a vaccine is proven successful. Reports suggest parents of kindergarten-eligible children in school districts that are exclusively online may have opted for daycare or home schooling.

Holding Districts Harmless

Despite lower enrollment overall, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced during his State of the State address on January 14, that his amended budget for the rest of this fiscal year would propose funding additional enrollment and holding public school districts harmless for students who leave to seek education elsewhere. 

Roam told legislators at the budget hearing that should the lower enrollment numbers continue into next school year, it would result in a fiscal year 2022 budget cut of more than $166 million in state funding to school districts.

K-12 funding accounts for 38% of the entire Georgia state budget.

Georgia Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Blake Tillery noted recently that  K-12 funding accounts for 38% of the entire state budget. Because state funding is based on student enrollment, “state funding will be down,” Tillery told the Foundation.

“However, because federal funds have been extremely high, I believe our schools will be OK; that they will be able to weather this and come out OK,” he added.

Still, the dearth of information about students concerns him. “There is concern about where the students are that are not enrolled in public schools. We do believe the students will return in the spring or next fall, but the question is, when they return, where will they be academically?”

No Changes Since COVID-19

GADOE officials mandate certain practices to track transfers; since the COVID-19 pandemic began last year, the department has not altered these guidelines, they said. Department spokeswoman Meghan Frick said enrollment data is posted publicly on the GADOE website after the completion of the fall student count each year. The number of “Declaration of Intent” homeschooling forms that families must submit to the department – a rolling count – is a matter of public record and the count “can be requested” for specific time ranges, Frick said.

Asked about their protocols for transfers, officials in some of Georgia’s largest school districts responded via email: 

  • Fulton County School System: Officials report this information annually in June to the GADOE in the district’s Student Record Data Submission, said system spokesman Brian Noyes. District officials require specific documentation when a public school student transfers to any school outside the district. That includes reasons for withdrawal. A records request from the receiving school will determine where the student transfers: a private school, a public school within Georgia, or a school outside the state. Students transferring to a homeschool must inform the GADOE. 
  • Gwinnett County Public Schools: When a student withdraws, school system officials will ask the child’s parent where he or she will enroll next, said spokeswoman Sloan Roach. The district codes the withdrawal based on the parent’s response.

Officials with Atlanta Public Schools did not respond to an email request for information.

So, where have all those children gone?

Choosing Charter Schools

While enrollment at traditional public schools declined, it climbed at public charter schools, according to GADOE’s 2020 annual charter schools report, released December 31. Fall charter school enrollment was 84,291, up more than 9% from the 2019-20 school year. Of Georgia’s 116 operational charter schools, 77 are locally approved charters and 39 are state-authorized public charters. Enrollment declined, however, at the state’s 48 public charter systems, (entire school districts that converted from traditional public schools). They enrolled 330,957 students, a nearly 8% decline from the 2019-20 enrollment of 358,014.

Two-thirds of state-commissioned public charter schools are at or above enrollment numbers from last year

Two-thirds of state-commissioned public charter schools are at or above enrollment numbers from last year, said Michael O’Sullivan, executive director of GeorgiaCAN, a state-based education advocacy organization.

“At the same time, virtual schools have gone above and beyond in stepping up and accepting students. They have opened themselves to take in as many students as possible,” O’Sullivan added. 

“It’s all about meeting the needs of the students and the parents.” 

Virtual Learning Spikes

Georgia’s largest public school is Georgia Cyber Academy, a statewide, online public charter school authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission. It saw enrollment increase by 2,600 students this school year, to 11,809. That was up 28% over last year. 

“We enrolled as many students as we could to meet demand, given personnel constraints for onboarding new students and their families,” said Head of School Angela Lassetter.

“We understand the challenges of learning in a virtual environment, as it is what we do every day.” 

GCA looked outward for ways to help as well, Lassetter said. “Early on when the pandemic took hold, our faculty, staff and families began answering questions from other educators and students new to virtual education.

“We quickly put together a resource page of best practices and lessons learned to help others that were new to virtual education. We know that we remain in a position to help others.”

Private Schools See Uptick

How many families turned to private schooling? The GADOE website lists 671 private schools in the state for the 2020-21 school year. District superintendents are required to report the total number of students living in their county who attend a private school, but those numbers are not displayed on the website.  

Ben Scafidi, economics professor at Kennesaw State University and director of the school’s Education Economics Center, said economic downturns generally affect private school attendance numbers. 

“The great recession of 2008 was a big ratchet down. It has glided up a little. 

“This is a weird recession because public schools went virtual and private school enrollment tended to increase or stay the same.

“If private school enrollments go down again that is a fiscal cost to the state, as a higher fraction of kids are in public schools. That is more money taxpayers have to pay. That is one reason to care [about this topic],” Scafidi said.

According to the survey of 160 independent schools in mid-November, 121 of the schools were open full time, for face-to-face learning.

The Georgia Independent Schools Association did not respond to an inquiry about private school enrollment. A survey across 15 states (including Georgia) and the District of Columbia found, however, that almost half of private schools (78) surveyed reported higher enrollment in the current school year compared with the year before.  Forty-eight schools reported an enrollment decline. The remaining 34 schools had enrollments “stay about the same,” and the reason enrollment did not increase at 14 of them was because they were at capacity.

O’Sullivan of GeorgiaCAN said private school enrollment numbers “have spiked.” 

“While many public schools continue to offer online education, private schools have been open and providing face-to-face instruction, which is important to many families. Their phones have been ringing off the hook with parents searching them out,” he said.

According to the survey of 160 independent schools in mid-November, 121 of the schools were open full time, for face-to-face learning. 

Homeschooling Numbers Unclear

Exact homeschool numbers are hard to come by; not all parents file the required Declaration of Intent. In 2015, GADOE reported 59,336 homeschooled students; that number was more than 77,000 by 2019. More families have chosen that education option since the pandemic sidelined in-person learning. One report in October 2020 cited a roughly 20% increase in Declaration of Intent filings for what the GADOE calls “home study programs.”

As mentioned previously, a GADOE spokeswoman said homeschool numbers “can be requested” from the department. As of publication, the department had not shared the numbers, despite repeated requests from the Foundation.

State-commissioned public charter schools, private schools and virtual schools all have experienced a spike in enrollment. Many families are also exploring a new concept – learning pods – which offer students in-person education and a chance to socialize with other children. 

Precisely where 36,000 children have gone instead of enrolling in Georgia’s public schools remains unclear.  What is clear, amid the uncertainty of the pandemic and many school districts’ changing plans regarding in-person, online and hybrid instruction, is that a growing number of Georgia parents seeking consistency are examining education options and alternatives for their children. 

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