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Thousands of students in Kansas and Missouri have left public education. Here's why

North Kansas City Schools
Courtesy of North Kansas City School District

Missouri and Kansas public schools enroll thousands of fewer students compared to before the pandemic, in part, because of a homeschooling boom and declining birth rates.

Thousands of students in Missouri and Kansas have left public school in the last four years, in line with a national trend of more families disengaging from public education.

An analysis by the Associated Press, Big Local News and Stanford University economist Thomas Dee found enrollment in Missouri’s public schools dropped by 2% from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2022-2023 school year — making up nearly 18,000 students.

Public school enrollment in Kansas is down about 16,000 students from its peak in 2015. Statewide enrollment numbers just released for 2023-2024 show 505,515 students in school this year, a 3% drop from the 2014-2015 school year.

Nationally, the AP’s study found private schooling grew nearly 8% and homeschooling grew by nearly 27% during the same time period among more than 30 states with credible private, public or homeschool enrollment data.

Collin Hitt, executive director of the PRiME Center, which studies education in Missouri, said it’s been an open question if that state’s homeschooling jump was temporary.

“Given the fact that we're seeing public K through 12 enrollments stay relatively flat, it probably suggests this is something that's going to continue for some time, which is a major development,” Hitt said.

Thousands of students across the country still haven’t returned to the classroom since the pandemic shut schools down for months. An estimated 230,0000 students were considered “missing” in fall 2021, meaning demographic changes or increases in private school or homeschooling couldn't account for their disappearance from public education.

Students have since slowly made their way back to varying forms of education or aged out of school, leaving only 50,000 kids unaccounted for.

Missouri doesn’t track private school data and doesn’t legally require parents to notify when they homeschool their child. However, most parents will notify their public school district if they switch to homeschooling.

Based on that limited data, Missouri has seen a 34% increase in homeschooling since 2019 — but that doesn’t include children who never attended public schools to begin with.

Education leaders anticipated a drop in enrollment across the country because of declining birth rates. U.S. birth rates have been on the downswing for more than a decade, hitting a record low in 2020.

The AP found there are 3,000 fewer school-aged children in Missouri compared to when the pandemic began.

Hitt said even if birth rates remain flat going forward, the declines between 2010 and 2020 have yet to age their way through the system, which will result in lower school enrollment.

However, he said birthrates can’t explain the steep drop in enrollment after the pandemic hit.

“What the pandemic did is it exposed more parents to homeschooling and virtual schooling,” Hitt said. “It also changed the work dynamic for tons of families, where tons of families are now working from home all or most of the time.”

That, combined with more private school vouchers and savings programs for families to spend on public school alternatives, Hitt said, has created the perfect conditions for a homeschooling boom.

Bert Moore, who oversees homeschool registrations for the Kansas Department of Education, said thousands of the state’s families decided to stick with homeschooling after getting a taste of it during the COVID pandemic.

Dannielle Joy Davis, better known to the community as Dr. Joy, runs a program for homeschooling families called "The Circle of Excellence" and is a professor of higher education at St. Louis University.

She began homeschooling her son before the pandemic, but said it was some families’ first exposure to homeschooling.

“Once students experienced that and enjoyed it, and once parents saw the joy of learning in their own households, as you imagine, some parents said, “‘This is nice — we should keep doing this,’” Davis said.

She said parents who choose to homeschool are drawn to the freedom to choose how to teach their children. For example, her son took a scuba class with a certified diver because he loves marine biology.

Davis said more families are turning to homeschooling for another reason.

Society and schools have seen dramatic changes in the last several years. Repeated mass shootings have heightened concerns around school safety. A white Minneapolis police officer’s 2020 murder of George Floyd kicked off international calls for justice and police reform. Republican state legislators in Kansas and Missouri have targeted school curricula around history and race in recent years.

Davis said some parents see homeschooling as an opportunity to protect their children from bullying, sexism or racism at school — and even the stress of having to go through a metal detector to enter the building.

“A large part of the shift is out of love,” Davis said. “The parents’ love of the children to say, ‘Look, the system is not the ideal in terms of cultivating a safe, peaceful, loving environment for my kid and look, I get to do something about it.’”

Thinking “smaller and smarter”

Hitt said declining public school enrollment has some potential benefits, like smaller class sizes. He said that could also allow the state to give schools more money per pupil in the short term, since the state legislature is used to appropriating a certain amount for K-12 education.

“It's possible that these enrollment declines will take some pressure off of the system and let them get down to a size that might actually work better for kids,” Hitt said.

But districts that see a significant decline in enrollment could have a substantial drop in state and federal resources, Hitt said, since those are typically determined on a per-pupil basis.

Enrollment in Wichita, the largest district in Kansas, is falling at an even faster rate than the state. Wichita’s headcount this school year is 46,414 — down 9% from its peak in 2015.

Two years ago, Wichita hired two full-time staff members to visit preschools and daycare centers to try to recruit families. This year, district leaders say continued enrollment declines could force them to consolidate and close some schools.

The steep enrollment drop following the pandemic has mostly leveled, but Hitt said schools will still have to cope with the fallout of declining birth rates for years to come.

“Going forward, I think 20 years from now, when we look back at who the most effective educational leaders were of this generation, it's going to be the people who figured this out; how do we get smaller, and smarter and better all at once?” Hitt said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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