Enrollment shows Oklahoma families pursuing education alternatives

January 4, 2023

Ray Carter

Although the learning disruptions caused by COVID are now largely a thing of the past, newly released state data show total enrollment in Oklahoma public schools still remains lower than it was three years ago before the pandemic.

The ongoing trend of lower public-school enrollment has occurred even though the overall state population has continued to grow. It’s the latest sign that a growing share of Oklahoma families are seeking educational alternatives for their children, such as homeschooling or private school. Those parents are pursuing education alternatives even though that can involve financial challenges for many lower- or middle-income families.

But the trend doesn’t surprise one national expert.

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a ‘do it yourself’ movement in K-12, which had been quietly gathering steam for decades,” said Matthew Ladner, a policy expert who is executive editor at reimaginED, the communications platform for Step Up For Students. “Ambitious parents had been spending an increasing effort on supplementing district schools. A look over the shoulders of their kids via Zoom convinced many that their children were better off figuring out schooling in their own communities in microschools. The future of K-12 is towards greater diversity and pluralism, less standardization and stagnation.”

Jennifer Johnson, a mother of three who began homeschooling her children after the Owasso school district stopped providing in-person instruction on a consistent basis during COVID, said many parents’ eyes were opened during the pandemic.

“Distance learning during school shutdowns due to COVID-19 really allowed parents to see what was actually happening in their kids’ classrooms, and in some cases what wasn’t happening but should have been,” Johnson said. “Before March 2020, we thought that our schools really put the interests and needs of our kids first, but now we know differently.”

The 2019-2020 school year began with 703,650 students enrolled in Oklahoma public schools. That was the first school year impacted by COVID, which arrived in spring 2020.

Three years later, the 2022-2023 school year began with 701,258 students, according to figures recently released by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. While lower than the pre-COVID total, this year’s enrollment represented a rebound because enrollment had fallen much further to 694,113 in the 2020-2021 school year when COVID’s impact on schooling was at its worst.

Even so, the trend of the last three years contrasts sharply with the pre-COVID trend when total public-school enrollment increased every year for more than a decade.

And total enrollment in Oklahoma public schools remains lower today even as Census data show Oklahoma’s overall population is increasing. According to Census estimates, Oklahoma’s population increased from 3,959,346 on April 1, 2020 (about the time that COVID first hit the state), to 4,019,800 by July 1, 2022. The Census also reports that Oklahoma’s population growth between July 1, 2021 and July 1, 2022, in percentage terms, outpaced all neighboring states but Texas.

“Before March 2020, we thought that our schools really put the interests and needs of our kids first, but now we know differently.” —Owasso mom Jennifer Johnson

Taken together, those figures indicate a growing number of families have opted out of the public school system and chosen other alternatives. Officials at Oklahoma private schools are seeing that reality firsthand.

“The majority of our schools have less than 10 percent capacity remaining,” said Lara Schuler, senior director of Catholic education for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. “Bishop McGuinness is currently under a capital campaign to expand/ build to meet the need. They are bulging at the seams. Mount St. Mary (High School) is in a similar situation.”

Schuler has also witnessed growth in homeschooling co-ops, referencing two local groups involving roughly 125 children whose parents are homeschooling with an emphasis on Catholic education.

If Oklahoma’s public-school enrollment during the last three years had continued to grow at the pace experienced the three school years prior to COVID’s arrival, there would be 12,243 more students enrolled in state public schools today. If student enrollment had grown at the same pace as the overall state population, there would be closer to 13,000 additional students in the public-school system.

Lower levels of public-school enrollment are not confined to any specific type of public school. Urban, suburban, and rural schools all report lower enrollment than prior to COVID.

Of the 10 largest-enrollment districts in 2019-2020, seven have fewer students today.

Some of the largest declines observed, in raw numbers, were in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa school districts, although that was the result of both true enrollment decline and the fact that charter-school students are no longer included in those districts’ student counts.

But other schools from all parts of the state also reported having fewer students enrolled at the start of the 2022-2023 school year than they did prior to the pandemic.

Districts reporting fewer enrolled students included suburban schools such as Moore, Norman, Putnam City, and Tulsa Union. And even in some suburban districts that avoided decline, such as the Jenks and Owasso districts, the rate of enrollment growth remained significantly slower than the rate of increase in the overall state population.

Of the more than 500 public school districts in Oklahoma, more than 300 reported lower enrollment in the current 2022-2023 school year than in 2019-2020, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

The shift to homeschooling and private-school education is occurring even though many families’ financial flexibility would be greater if their children remained in public schools. Schuler said some families that have enrolled children in Oklahoma City’s Catholic schools have chosen that path despite having to work hard to make ends meet.

Such families could benefit from potential expansion of Oklahoma’s school-choice programs this year. A legislative proposal unveiled in 2022 that is expected to be revived in the 2023 session would allow Oklahoma families to use a portion of their child’s per-pupil state education funding to pay for private school tuition.

As originally proposed last year, the Oklahoma Empowerment Account (OEA) Program would provide families with base funding of at least $3,619 per child, although some students could receive more based on a variety of factors.

While that might not cover the full cost of private-school tuition, it would make the option viable for a larger share of families, as has occurred in an existing, similar voucher program for adoptive children and those with special needs. And private-school tuition in Oklahoma is often lower—sometimes much lower—than the per-pupil expenditure in state public schools.

Johnson said she knows of several families who now homeschool for a range of reasons, including concern that their kids were “falling behind” without proper response from school officials, concern regarding classroom instruction that did not align with a family’s values, and school district officials dismissing parental input.

As long as those problems persist, she predicted Oklahoma parents will keep pursuing alternatives.

“I see this trend of families leaving the public school system continuing,” Johnson said, “until school districts start listening to parents regarding what is being taught and returning to teaching core subjects.”

[OCPA policy research fellow Curtis Shelton contributed to this story.]