Private, Charter, and Homeschooling All Experience Growth as Pandemic Reshapes US School System

There is a new issue facing Kathleen McNutt at Bishop Ireton High School: an influx of students that exceeds the school’s capacity.

For the first time in decades, the Catholic school in Alexandria, Virginia, has a waiting list for every grade. Despite the shift to online classes during the pandemic, enrollment at McNutt’s campus continued to grow. The school also underwent a building project that increased its capacity.

While most schools, especially traditional public schools, were slow to reopen for in-person classes, Bishop Ireton had students back in the classroom by August 2020, with a hybrid schedule of two days a week in class and remote instruction the rest of the week. As a result, they did not experience a significant loss in enrollment when public schools reopened.

“During the time public schools were closed, we had individuals who wanted in-school instruction,” said McNutt. “Once public schools reopened, we did not have many students who left after just one year.”

A Shift in Enrollment Due to the COVID Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the school landscape in the United States. Enrollment in charter schools, which are independently run public schools, has increased and remained stable. Homeschooling has also seen a surge in popularity.

Newly published data from this week reveals a slight increase in private school enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year. This growth of about 1.7% comes despite initial challenges, such as the loss of international students due to COVID and other issues faced by private schools.

“Families were forced to reevaluate their needs during the pandemic,” said Myra McGovern, Vice President of Media for the National Association of Independent Schools, an organization representing around 30,000 private schools in the country.

The latest federal data shows that approximately 4.7 million K-12 students are enrolled in private schools nationwide. Additionally, recent legislation in several states has provided parents with options to choose private schools, homeschooling, or a combination of both with financial assistance.

While some of these alternatives are still in the early stages, they have the potential to contribute to a larger private school population in the long run. Existing private school parents have been drawn to the financial aid, while new parents are utilizing these options for the first time.

The Impact of the Pandemic on School Choices

Public Schools Remain the Majority

Despite the increase in private schools, homeschooling, charter schools, and other forms of education, the majority of schoolchildren in the United States still attend traditional public schools.

While private schools like Bishop Ireton continue to thrive, Catholic schools in other regions, including the St. Louis area, are facing closures. Overall, private school enrollment has declined compared to previous years.

Neal McCluskey, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute, explains that in some communities where Catholic schools were once prominent, declining population and decreased Catholic presence have contributed to closures. However, non-Catholic Christian schools have been experiencing growth.

At Bishop Ireton, a college preparatory school, enrollment has grown from 750 students before the pandemic to 920 this year. The school has also seen a record number of applications.

“It’s a challenging situation, but it reflects what families are looking for at this time. They want a school that nurtures the whole person,” said McNutt.

Post-Pandemic Popularity of School Choice – Implications for Students and Schools

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