Parents opting to home-school beyond closures add to school finance concerns

Kristen Smith’s 10-year-old son is a self-motivated student who loves to learn. And while Smith has been told multiple times that she should consider home-schooling her son, who excels academically and jumped from 4th to 6th grade last year, the idea always overwhelmed her. Besides, her son has enjoyed the social aspects of school and needed to work on organizational skills that come from being in a classroom. 

Now, however, everything is different. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Smiths’ school on the Fort Bragg military installation in North Carolina, like so many others across the country, switched to virtual instruction.

Schoolwork has since become increasingly slow-paced, and the socialization benefits for her son are nonexistent, she said. “It’s not a huge deal for a quarter, but I don’t want to do another semester or year of that.”

If the school is still closed and online-only come fall, Smith is planning to scale back her work hours and home-school her son. She’s already started doing research.

Interest surging in wake of coronavirus shutdowns

Smith isn’t the only one. The National Home School Association has seen a surge in inquiries from parents weighing their options if K-12 schools remain online: If their children are going to be home anyway, parents want the freedom to choose their own curriculum and schedule.

“A very large number of parents are now planning on not sending their kids back to school in the fall based on the calls we have been getting,” said J. Allen Weston, executive director of the organization. He said the organization’s call volume has increased “at least tenfold.”

In addition to Smith, a handful of other parents, including some who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, also told Education Dive they’re considering pulling their children out of school and making the switch.

The future is uncertain — for these families, as well as their schools, which in many cases are preparing for a 2020-21 school year that will look a lot different than what students are used to. New CDC guidelines recommend staff wear masks and promote social distancing when possible, including by spacing out students’ desks to six feet apart and closing communal areas such as lunch rooms.

But if there is a massive shift to home-schooling in the next few months, school districts could feel the financial pinch for years to come. 

“The way the state statutes work is that when the state is determining how much it is going to spend and allocate for public education, one of the basic components of that calculation is how many students are in the public school system,” said Daniel Thatcher, a senior fellow in education at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State laws differ, but in general, student counts matter for determining resources, including school staff as well as per-pupil funding, for the following school year, Thatcher said. That means school districts are preparing for next year based on pre-COVID budgets — funds that may no longer be guaranteed, especially in light of state economic hardships

“States are going to make mid-year cuts. They’re going to have to,” Thatcher said. “If a district relies heavily on state revenue … then that means they’ll have to cut staff or they’ll cut a lot of things. If there’s students leaving the public school system, you just don’t know yet what that’s going to look like.”

How likely is a mass exodus of students?

Thatcher said he’s heard people discuss the option of home-schooling their kids next year if remote learning is still in play, but he’s not personally convinced there will be a mass exodus out of public schools since only a relatively small segment of the population has the option to home-school. And if the Great Recession is any indication, private schools will likely lose students because some parents will no longer be able to afford tuition prices, so those students could end up taking the place of students who leave public schools.

“It could be just a wash,” Thatcher said.

The impact, if there is one directly linked to students being home-schooled, will most likely be felt in the 2021-22 school year, based on next year’s student counts. 

Meanwhile, some school leaders are upping their efforts to keep families engaged.

Districts urge family engagement and support

“We are going to use our digital tools to entice them, to engage them,” said Luvelle Brown, superintendent of the Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, New York. “We’ve got everything from office hours that educators are offering up to dance parties that we provide for all young people in the digital space to connect with.”

Brown said the district is really honing in on its focus to provide a culturally responsive and inclusive education for students, particularly those of color in the majority-white district of 6,000 students. The materials used in remote learning activities will continue to reflect students’ cultural backgrounds and identity, just like the materials they have access to at home now. 

“It’s a continuation of what we have been doing,” he said. “Those same conversations that we’re having in a brick and mortar building, we’re having in a digital environment, too.”

In Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, the district has utilized its parent liaisons to engage families. They have active roles “helping parents learn and know how to access resources and information to make distance learning easier,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Neither district knows what next school year will look like, but they’re preparing for multiple options — and one of those could see children continuing to attend classes online for the second semester in a row.

“As a school district, we are now organizing and preparing for all scenarios, and if home-schooling is an option that folks want because they have the time and privilege to do so, I’m going to support that, and I have supported that,” Brown said, though he stands by public schools.

In Ithaca, one option leaders are considering is a hybrid model, in which students will split their time between their homes and their classrooms. Brown said that could be attractive to parents who have considered home-schooling if things go unchanged.

He’s not particularly worried, however, about the impact students leaving would have on funding. Funding has always been an issue public school leaders have had to navigate, he said, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

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