Where Do We Go from Here?
By Charles Sosnik
Schools are a business. Demand and supply. To be run efficiently, schools must operate at or near capacity. So, what does it mean when nearly 40 percent of parents opt to take their school-aged children out of traditional public school?
In short, it means consolidation. Take the kids out of some schools and pack them into others. Then close the empty schools. Simple, right?
One could say it is simple mathematics, but the process is anything but simple.
Over the last decade or so, a number of cities have been closing schools due to population shifts, the popularity of charter schools, private (independent) school choices, and the move to homeschooling. Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia come to mind, but school closures can be found across the nation. This trend would have continued, slowly, steadily, and more or less at pace, if it weren’t for the pandemic. In essence, the pandemic showed parents just how viable alternatives, especially homeschooling, could be.
Now the race is on for traditional public schools (TPS) to fight back and keep their students enrolled, and the traditional public schools are clearly losing the race. Just prior to the pandemic, 73 percent of eligible students were still enrolled in TPS. Now that number is closer to 60 percent. That’s a difference of 7,410,000 students.
Twenty years ago, LA Unified had 737,000 students. Now they have 430,000. They lost 44,000 in the pandemic period (PP). New York City lost 62,000 students in the PP. Chicago Public Schools is down 25,000 to the PP. Salt Lake City Public Schools has seen a 13 percent decline in enrollment.
Now come the tough decisions.
Oakland just voted to close seven schools. A district spokesperson said declining enrollment has led to a decrease in revenue, as the district fails to balance a $90 million budget shortfall. The closures could save Oakland schools $4 million to $14.7 million annually, according to analysis by the district.
St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota lost over 6 percent enrollment this school year. The school board permanently closed two schools and has temporarily closed four others.
The Fairbanks (Alaska) North Star Borough school board has voted to close three elementary schools because of declining enrollment.
New Orleans Public Schools is facing an enrollment crisis; nearly 20 percent of district seats are currently unfilled. Four K-8 schools are set to close at the end of the school year, and officials said more closures would be necessary.
The Baltimore City school board voted to close three public schools next summer.
Is it possible that all our problems are tied together in one neat bow, and that all have a common solution? In fact, our four top challenges are tied together, even though it may seem like their solutions would be contrary to one another. For example, the migration of students away from TPS would seem to help the teacher shortage. Less students means less teachers are needed. But oddly enough, both have a common solution. The other greatest challenges, student stress and teacher overwhelm, share a common solution with the teacher shortage and migration of students.
Student migration has two major causes. The first, urban centers emptying out because employment opportunities have fled the city, is perhaps a longer-term solution. Obviously, some schools may need to be scuttled. But for the population that remains, it is important that we provide a high-quality neighborhood school. The good news is that resources can be shared. Proper logistics can ensure that teaching talent is shared via technology; geography doesn’t have to be the deciding factor. The second cause, the quality of the learning experience, is simply a matter of will. Logistics can ensure a terrific learning experience, with quality teachers available as needed and a myriad of social learning experiences that no homeschooling experience can compete with.
The teacher shortage has happened because a number of circumstances have presented at one time. First, baby boomers are retiring. Second, because young professional women have so many more career options, far fewer are entering schools of education. And third, underuse of technology and improper logistics are overwhelming teachers, causing them to leave the profession earlier and earlier. Baby boomer retirement is inevitable, although recruiting retirees from other fields can help fill that void. At one time, employment opportunities for women were much more limited. Now, women can prosper in any profession, so teaching is weighed against hundreds of options. Teaching still has its allure, but the profession seriously needs to market itself. Next year, the number of available teachers is expected to be nearly one million less than previous years. Even with less students to teach, wholesale adjustments need to be made in the allocation of teaching talent. Teachers need to be available to teach, with other duties taken off their plate and relegated to technology or nonprofessionals.
Student stress and lack of wellbeing has been building more rapidly since the start of the pandemic, and has accelerated during the entire PP. Getting kids back into school, giving them real personalized learning and wonderful social opportunities will go miles towards helping them find a sense of wellbeing they have lost. Again, proper logistics can ensure that our resources are available for each of these learners.
And taking the extra duties away from teachers, allowing technology to do the heavy lifting will help our teachers fall in love with the profession all over again. Instead of being a slave to technology, working 20 hours per week searching and assembling lessons, our teachers can spend their time actually teaching, engaging learners as needed, and watching that special light in their eyes as they experience the joy of learning.
It is true. There will be some tough decisions. But rather than hand-wringing over some school closures, let’s see this as an opportunity to right the ship and create the best schools in the history of education. We can do this. And when we do, you’ll see the student migration end, and teachers coming back to the profession. Because after all, teaching should be a joy, and we have the technology and the will to create amazing centers of learning. Education professionals are the most amazing people on God’s green earth. Let’s move that thought to the center, and everything else will be within our grasp.
About the author
Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor and serves as Editor in Chief at the Learning Counsel. An EP3 Education Fellow, he uses his deep roots in the education community to add context to the education narrative. Charles is a frequent writer and columnist for some of the most influential media in education, including the Learning Counsel, EdNews Daily, EdTech Digest and edCircuit. Unabashedly Southern, Charles likes to say he is an editor by trade and Southern by the Grace of God.