With enrollment declines, public schools are competing for fewer students. Incentive or demise?

Minnesota public school enrollment has dropped for three consecutive years now, as thousands of students turned to other learning environments for their education during school closures. And are staying there. Private school and charter school enrollment continue to increase.

Paired with the exodus of families is a decline in birth rates, as my colleague Bill Glahn explains here.

In 2025, schools will be missing about 6,000 kindergarteners, statewide. In 2025, K-5 elementary schools will be missing about 13,000 students, statewide. The numbers will continue to compound as this cohort moves through middle school, and then high school.

With enrollment lags across the country, schools are competing for fewer students, writes Linda Jacobson with The 74. Families, for a variety of reasons, are not choosing district schools. As alternatives become more accessible to families through school choice expansion, there has been a dramatic change in who can access the learning environment that works best for them. Outside of private and charter schools, families are also pursuing other innovative options, such as micro-schools and learning pods.

Competition is a positive thing

Enrollment declines have contributed to school mergers in certain areas, but they have also resulted in districts staying “competitive by designing school models that parents want,” continues Jacobson. For example, the San Antonio school district has “had success with a 2017 state law that provides incentives to partner with charters and nonprofit organizations to run schools.”

As parents vote with their feet, school leaders should consider why families are looking elsewhere and use that to become better. From academic declines to curriculum concerns to safety and behavior issues, families are looking elsewhere for a variety of reasons.

In states that offer families — regardless of zip code or socioeconomic factors — an educational choice program, not only are participating students benefiting but also students who remain in the government schools.

There have been 28 studies done on the topic, and 25 find statistically significant positive effects of private school choice competition on student outcomes in public schools. In a peer-reviewed meta-analysis from 2019, the authors concluded that school choice competition improves outcomes in public schools. A peer-reviewed systematic review of the evidence on this topic shows that 20 of 21 studies found positive effects of school choice competition on public school student outcomes.

As I wrote here, support for educational freedom is not an “either/or” argument when it comes to public schools. It’s “both/and.” Empowering families is good for the students whose parents choose to have them participate in the school choice program, and it helps students whose parents choose to keep them in their neighborhood school.

Competition has shown to be a tide that lifts all boats.