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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Public schools are losing white, middle-class students

Urban school districts are losing students, writes Matt Welch, a public school parent in New York City, in Reason. White, middle-class parents are giving up on city schools. It's not just school closures that's driving parents away, he argues.

The pandemic, an asteroid-level event that permanently altered the landscape for public education in the U.S., is the Big Bang when it comes to plummeting enrollment numbers and catastrophic learning loss in government-run K-12. And the big-city systems that were most likely to be closed or to impose onerous COVID-19 restrictions from the fall of 2020 onward were the ones that suffered the most bleed along both measures.
But they are also, as in New York, the most likely districts to adopt such "equity"-driven policy changes as controlled choice for admissions, ending specialized schools and Gifted & Talented programs, and adopting "restorative justice" approaches to student discipline. Some of those policies were already correlating with unforeseen enrollment declines before the pandemic; others became political flashpoints during the COVID years as newly involved public school parents noticed with bewilderment that even shuttered systems were focusing to an obsessive degree on policies related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

In 2019, as Welch's eldest daughter was entering six grade, her Brooklyn district dropped selective admissions to middle schools to combat "desegregation," he writes.

The changes "resulted in a large increase in the shares of White students and non-FRPL (free and reduced-price lunch) students enrolling outside the public school system," concluded researcher Clémence Idoux in a June 2021 MIT paper.

Photo: MART Productions/Pexels

"We have a massive hemorrhaging of students — massive hemorrhaging," Mayor Eric Adams said in July. "We're in a very dangerous place in the number of students that we are dropping."

Last week, David C. Banks, Adams' school chancellor, announced that the city's selective middle schools will use students' grades rather than a random lottery to determine admission, reports Troy Closson in the New York Times. "The previous administration ended the use of grades and test scores two years ago."

"At the city’s competitive high schools, where changes widened the pool of eligible applicants, priority for seats will be limited to top students whose grades are an A average," he writes. New York City’s education officials hope "to create more equitable schools, while trying to prevent middle-class families from abandoning the system," writes Closson. "The district is bleeding students: Roughly 120,000 families have left traditional public schools over the past five years. Some have left the system, and others have gone to charter schools."

Mayor Adams also is expanding gifted and talented classes for elementary students and supports increasing seats in specialized high schools or creating new schools, reports Closson.

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