With California’s porous southern border, soaring taxes, and ongoing flow of overbearing and occasionally bizarre regulations (one law targets cow flatulence, for example), state residents could use a break from bad news. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. According to a recent report, California now leads the country in illiteracy. In fact, 23.1 percent of Californians over age 15 cannot read this sentence.

While the problem has many causes, much of the blame falls on the state’s failing public schools. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that just 30 percent of California eighth-graders are proficient in reading. And those numbers reflect results gathered before the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Voters’ attitudes toward California’s government-run schools have tumbled accordingly. A new poll from UC–Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies reveals that just 35 percent of the state’s voters gave public schools in their local district a grade of A or B, down from 55 percent in 2011. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent now give their local public schools a D or an F, up 15 percentage points from 2011. The poll included responses from 800 California voters, with 50 percent identifying as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans, and 24 percent as independents.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, that public school enrollment is sinking. In 2018–2019, the system lost about 23,000 students, but between the 2019–2020 and 2020–2021 terms, California public schools saw more than 160,000 students leave—a sevenfold increase.

In Los Angeles, defections are accelerating. Whereas L.A. Unified schools were home to 737,000 students 20 years ago, the district is now forecasting a 25,000-student drop by the fall, which would bring their attendance number below the 400,000 mark. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the district’s “American Rescue Plan” funding will soon run out: “From July forward, the district is projected to spend about $1 billion more than it will take in over a two-year period. The district also must wrestle with underfunded retiree health benefits.” Additionally, the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles runs out at the end of the school year, and the union will demand the sun and the moon for the next contract.

San Diego, another troubled California city, is losing students from its public schools at a faster clip than district leaders expected, which will undoubtedly lead to financial difficulties. In Oakland, the school board has voted to close seven schools over the next two years due to sagging enrollment.

Where are the “leavers” going for schooling? Some are being schooled in other states, as California’s overall population is declining, while others are opting for the state’s Catholic schools, which have seen a major uptick. In San Diego, for example, all grade levels saw an enrollment increase of at least 5 percent for the 2020–2021 academic year, according to the city’s Roman Catholic Diocese. Per U.S. News & World Report, much of the increase can be attributed to pre-kindergarten enrollment, which saw a 134 percent increase from academic year 2020–21 to 2021–22 in California.

Homeschooling has been booming, too. Pre-pandemic, California had roughly 200,000 homeschooled students. For 2020–2021, 400,000 were being homeschooled for at least part of the school year. These figures are in line with the typical U.S. share of 5 percent to 11 percent of students being homeschooled during that time period.

Many who remain in California have enrolled their children in charter schools, which saw a 15,283 student gain in the 2020–2021 school year, a 2.3 percent rise from the previous year, bringing the total to 690,657. By contrast, the 160,000 students who exited the state’s public schools represent an almost 3 percent drop.

During the darkest days of Covid, public charter schools became an in-person option, as they are independent, flexible, and rarely unionized. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) examined how charter schools responded to Covid compared with traditional public schools in California, New York, and Washington from March 2020 to June 2020 and then for the 2020–2021 school year. Researchers found that charters could pivot from in-school teaching to remote instruction remarkably quickly.

“In multiple states and under varying conditions, the majority of charter schools we surveyed demonstrated resilience and creativity in responding to the physical and social challenges presented by COVID,” CREDO announced on February 15. In spring 2020, California charter schools took an average of just four days to shift to remote teaching once they closed their doors. Charters in New York took an average of three days to make the transition, and those in Washington averaged just two days. By contrast, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that 71 percent of districts in the U.S. did not “yet require teachers to provide instruction” in the spring of 2020. (While there is no data available on the transition for school districts in California, the state is likely in line with the rest of the country.)

The Covid pandemic and public officials’ overwrought response to it has awakened many parents to the deficiencies of government-run schools. They have come to realize that massive bureaucracies and powerful teachers’ unions rarely act in the best interests of children. This growing awareness has been hard-won, but better late than never.

Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images


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