Ray Carter | December 8, 2022

Pandemic fueled school choice in Oklahoma

Ray Carter

Thousands of Oklahoma students left the traditional public school system during the COVID-19 pandemic and those families continued to embrace school choice two years later, declining to return to traditional district schools even after those schools reopened for in-person instruction, according to a new report.

“Changing Course: Public School Enrollment Shifts During the Pandemic,” a report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, determined that enrollment in traditional public schools has not recovered to the pre-pandemic figure in states across the country, including Oklahoma.

“These data make one thing clear: the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the eyes of parents and families to other possible options for their children’s education and with this new awareness they are making different choices,” the report stated. “In nearly every state, more families are choosing charter schools, homeschooling, and private school, while fewer are choosing district public schools.”

Nationally, public charter school enrollment increased in 39 of the 41 states for which data were readily available from the 2019–2020 school year, which was disrupted beginning in March 2020 by the arrival of COVID, to the 2021–2022 school year. Growth in charter-school enrollment occurred as enrollment in traditional district public schools declined in 39 of 41 states.

The report found that enrollment growth in charter schools outpaced state population trends in 34 states.

A national survey of more than 5,000 parents conducted by The Harris Poll in May 2022 found most families were glad they made the change from traditional district schools. Nearly 20 percent of families switched the type of school their child attended from March 2020 to May 2022, and 89 percent of those families reported that they or their child experienced a positive change as a result.

In Oklahoma, the report showed that the number of students enrolled in traditional public schools fell by 45,288 between the 2019-2020 school year and the following 2020-2021 school year. Among charter schools in Oklahoma, including online charters, enrollment surged by 35,751 during that time. The nearly 10,000 other students are believed to have shifted to homeschooling or private school.

In the subsequent year of the pandemic, the 2021-2022 school year, traditional public schools in Oklahoma regained 26,567 students as most schools reopened for in-person instruction. Charter school enrollment in Oklahoma dropped 21,984 students from the prior year.

But those figures indicate that 18,721 students who left traditional public schools at the onset of the COVID pandemic continued to stick with alternatives that included homeschooling, private schools, and charter schools.

Enrollment in traditional public schools in Oklahoma remained lower in the 2021-2022 school year than it was two years prior in the 2019-2020 school year.

And those figures likely understate the true extent of the shift in school choices by Oklahoma families, because the overall number of school-age children increased by thousands during that period.

The report found that the school-age population in Oklahoma increased by 2.51 percent from 2019 to 2021, while enrollment in the state’s traditional public schools declined by 2.85 percent. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of Oklahoma children between the ages of five and 17 increased by 17,944 even as the number of children enrolled in traditional district public schools declined by 18,721.

“The point is not simply that parents prefer one type of public school over another,” the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools report stated. “The bigger takeaway is that we are experiencing a parent revolution, spurred by the pandemic, and likely here to stay. In communities across America, families are clamoring for something other than the school their children are zoned to attend.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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