Jimmy Sengenberger

Jimmy Sengenberger

To quote Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “There has been an awakening.  Have you felt it?”

Whether we’re talking about PreK-12 schooling or higher ed, things are changing.  Parents and students are starting to realize the raw deal they’ve been getting with the current education systems.  It’s showing up in enrollment data — and should send a message to policy makers and the educational establishments that reform must come.

Let’s start with public PreK-12 schooling.  In January, the Colorado Department of Education confirmed a 3.3% decrease in public school enrollment between fall 2019 and fall 2020, or 30,024 fewer students enrolled between preschool and 12th grade — the first enrollment decline since fall 1988.

The PreK-12 drop included 23.3% of preschoolers and 9.1% of kindergarteners, as parents decided to hold off amidst the pandemic.  Among elementary grades 1-5 and middle schools, the declines were 4.2% (13,833 students) and 2% (3,942 students), respectively.  High school totals charted about the same.

What’s going on here?  First, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed school districts to accentuate remote learning.  As I’ve written before, this is a woefully inadequate approach to teaching children (except in preexisting online-based schools).  Parents intuitively get this and have grown frustrated because of it.

Second, as CDE reports, “The number of students reported as homeschooled doubled with 15,773 students counted this fall compared to 7,880 in 2019.”  Many parents have concluded that, if their children’s schools are closed, they would be better off homeschooling them.  Private and parochial school enrollment for 2020-2021 has likely risen as well.

With these numbers and circumstances in mind, let’s consider the big problem with the public school system that has been exposed by the pandemic.  To be clear, this isn’t one of troublesome teachers.  In fact, the recent survey indicating as many as 40% of Colorado teachers may leave the profession after this school year is so troubling because we have so many excellent teachers.  Unfortunately, already underpaid, teachers have had to face a threatening virus and been forced to teach students in a way they weren’t trained to — and would rather not — do (online learning). 

Rather, the pandemic has revealed how the overarching problem with the system is in its very nature.  As Reason Foundation’s Corey DeAngelis told me on my webshow, “COVID didn’t break the public school system; it was already broken.  The pandemic shined a spotlight on the main problem of K-12 education is this massive power imbalance between the producers of the service — the public school system — and the individual families.”

He’s spot-on.  Parents across Colorado have found themselves and their kids at the mercy of their school districts.  Is the district open for in-person learning at your child’s grade level?  The quality of your kid’s education likely depends on the answer.  Unfortunately, the financial burdens of moving a child from public school are significant, so it’s hard for most parents to do.  This also helps explain the racial imbalance: CDE says more white students left public schools (19,759) than any other racial or ethnic group.

“It’s one thing for a family to not get an adequate education and then still have their children’s education dollars going to that institution,” DeAngelis said.  “It’s another conversation altogether for the child’s school to not even reopen and then for them to still get the children’s education dollars…Families are starting to think, ‘Well if my school doesn’t reopen, I should be able to take my children’s education dollars elsewher

They’re right.

February numbers from the state’s Department of Higher Education show a similar trend in public colleges and universities, revealing a 5.2% overall decline in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

While the higher ed system is fundamentally different from public PreK-12, the pandemic has also unmasked the key failure of postsecondary education.  Forced home for remote learning, college students have asked themselves, “Why am I paying so much money to go to college – in tuition and fees – when my experience isn’t giving me what I’m supposed to be paying for?”

With the average cost of public 4-year college up 34.3% between 2010 and 2020 — and aggregate student loan debt doubled — more students are starting to see just how ridiculous the expense has become and to question the quality of the product — pandemic or not.  This may incentivize postsecondary students to be more discerning in their decision-making on whether and where to go to school, and it should be a clarion call for changes in how higher ed is funded and operates.

Politically astute policy makers concerned with quality, affordable education — at any level — would be wise to acknowledge what’s going on here and urge real reform.  That means more school choice for PreK-12, a revamp of the postsecondary education system and smarter budgeting at every level.  Our very future depends on it.

Jimmy Sengenberger is host of “The Jimmy Sengenberger Show” on News/Talk 710 KNUS.  He also hosts “Jimmy at the Crossroads,” a webshow and podcast in partnership with The Washington Examiner.