All Commentary
Monday, March 20, 2023

More Than One Million Students Left District Schools. How Do We Know They’re Learning?

If parents are satisfied with the quality of their children's learning environment, then the rest of us should be too. 

Amber Okolo-Ebube

The education disruption caused by mass school closures and prolonged remote instruction beginning three years ago this month led many families to seek other learning options beyond an assigned district school. Emerging research reveals just how significant and sustained that shift was.

In a new report, “Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographic Change during the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools,” Stanford economist Thomas Dee reveals that more than 1.2 million students left district schools during the pandemic response. That exodus endured throughout the 2021/2022 academic year, as families continued to opt for private schools and homeschooling even though most district schools reopened. 

Indeed, homeschooling accounted for one of the largest growth areas. According to Dee, for every one child that enrolled in private schools during the pandemic, nearly two children became homeschoolers. The district schooling exodus was particularly pronounced in areas where district schools remained closed the longest, as previous research also revealed. 

Prolonged school closures and remote district schooling were the triggers many parents needed to explore other educational possibilities for their children. Now that they have discovered private schools and homeschooling, many families have no desire to return to a district school. 

This shift has some people wondering about how children are being educated outside of a district school. Dee concludes his paper by stating that “the sharp and sustained growth in homeschooling and private school enrollment raises new questions about the quality of the learning environments children are experiencing.”

Parents clearly believe that the “quality of the learning environments” their children are now experiencing is better than the district schools they fled. For those families who chose homeschooling and private schooling over the past three years, they gave up a local “free” option for something more expensive, either in time or money—or both. Their continued satisfaction with the quality of their children’s new learning environment is keeping them there. 

If parents are satisfied with that quality, then the rest of us should be too. 

It helps that there are now many more education options for families, thanks to the everyday entrepreneurs who are creating new learning models and reimagining K-12 schooling. 

One of those entrepreneurs is Amber Okolo-Ebube. A longtime homeschooling mother in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas, Okolo-Ebube runs Leading Little Arrows, a weekly homeschooling enrichment program focused on nature, art, and STEM subjects. Her program has become so popular over the past year that she recently leased a building across the street from the University of Texas at Arlington campus. With 33 students and several adult facilitators, she is already near capacity, and will be expanding to run a microschool this fall.

Approximately three-quarters of Okolo-Ebube’s students are neurodiverse, with several, including one of her own children, on the autism spectrum. Leading Little Arrows provides the individualized learning environment and freedom of movement that enables both neurodiverse and neurotypical children to thrive. 

Okolo-Ebube sees continued interest from families in homeschooling and other schooling alternatives. “I feel like there’s been a shift,” she told me during my recent visit to Leading Little Arrows. “I think COVID showed parents what was happening in their children’s schools, and also showed them that they could do better with homeschooling.”

She fields calls regularly from parents looking to leave local district schools for homeschooling and microschooling. “I don’t think this is stopping any time soon,” she said.

The Dallas/Fort Worth area has become a hub of education entrepreneurship and innovation. Many of these entrepreneurs, including Okolo-Ebube, have received small grants from the VELA Education Fund to accelerate their programs. A philanthropic nonprofit, VELA provides microgrants to entrepreneurial parents and educators who are building out-of-system learning models, such as microschools, homeschool co-ops, learning pods, and more. Since launching publicly in 2020, VELA has provided grants to over 2,000 of these entrepreneurs across the US, totaling more than $20 million. 

The quality of Leading Little Arrows is measured by the continued growth of the program and increased parent interest, as well as the fact that some of Okolo-Ebube’s families drive more than an hour each way to attend. The parents I spoke with told me they value the diversity there, not only racially and socioeconomically, but also the diversity of ages of students (3-17) and the neurodiversity that is represented and celebrated. They also appreciate the personalized curriculum content that is being provided, with academic blocks bookended by ample outside and free-play time. 

Over the past three years of education disruption, parents have been empowered to take back control of their children’s education. They are exploring learning options beyond their assigned district schools, and are flocking to homeschooling, microschooling, and related private education models at record rates. Education entrepreneurs across the country are acknowledging this demand for new and different educational possibilities, and are creating the kinds of quality programs that parents want. 

Like this story? Sign up here for Kerry McDonald’s free, weekly email newsletter with fresh ideas on education trends and innovative learning models!