Private, charter, homeschooling grew after pandemic, but most kids attend public schools

At Bishop Ireton High School, Kathleen McNutt is facing a new kind of problem: more students than she can accommodate.

The Catholic school in Alexandria, Virginia, has a waiting list for every grade for the first time in decades. Enrollment at McNutt’s campus, which surged after the pandemic closed in-person classes around the country and a building project increased the school’s capacity, never subsided.

Although the campus shifted to online classes along with most of the nation in March 2020, students were back in class by August, two days a week, following along with live instruction the rest of the week. It was far deeper into the 2020-21 school year before many other schools, especially traditional public schools, did the same.

"We did have people obviously who came to us and wanted to have in-school instruction during the time the public schools were out," said McNutt, Bishop Ireton’s head of school. When public schools reopened, "we did not have very many people who were just for a year and left."

At Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia, a Catholic school where enrollment has grown since the pandemic, sophomore Mary Carlson practices during her guitar class.
At Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Virginia, a Catholic school where enrollment has grown since the pandemic, sophomore Mary Carlson practices during her guitar class.

COVID pandemic 'forced people to look at what their families needed'

The pandemic has reshaped the American school landscape: Enrollment in charter schools − public schools that are independently run − swelled and has held steady. The number of children being homeschooled surged, too.

And now, new data published this week shows that even though there are fewer private school campuses in the country overall, private school enrollment ticked up ever so slightly in the 2021-22 school year – about 1.7% – after the pandemic, too, among K-12 students. That’s despite an initial loss of some international students because of COVID and other effects on private schools.

“The pandemic forced people to look at what their families needed,” said Myra McGovern, vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools, one of several organizations representing different slices of the nation’s roughly 30,000 private schools.

About 4.7 million K-12 students are enrolled in private schools nationwide, the new federal data shows. There may be more to come: In 2021 and 2023, waves of legislation gave parents in several states the option to choose private schools, homeschooling, or some combination of those and other options for their children, with the help of subsidies.

Some of those options are only now getting off the ground but may contribute to a larger private school population in the long term. In some cases, parents already enrolled in private schools have been drawn to the tax-funded financial help, but in others, parents new to private schooling are using the aid.

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Most American kids go to public schools even after pandemic reckoning

Despite the recent shifts to private schools, homeschooling, charter schools, and other types of education, and a drop in overall public school enrollment, the overwhelming majority of schoolchildren nationwide attend traditional public schools.

Even as private schools including Bishop Ireton are flourishing, Catholic schools in other parts of the country face closing down, including dozens in the St. Louis area. And compared with the more distant past, private school enrollment is down overall: About 5.3 million K-12 students attended private schools in 1999, the federal data shows.

In some regions where Catholic schools were once an integral part of the community, the population has dropped, the number of Catholics has declined, or both, said Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the libertarian Cato Institute. McCluskey has been tracking the enrollment at private schools closely for several years.

At the same time, he said, non-Catholic Christian schools have been growing.

At Bishop Ireton, a college preparatory school, enrollment was about 750 students the summer before the pandemic and is 920 this year, McNutt said. The school has had a record number of applications.

"It’s a great challenge to have but it certainly speaks to what families are seeking at this time. They want a school that will serve the whole person," McNutt said. "That’s what we’re seeking to do every day."

School choice popular post-pandemic. What it means for students and schools.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Private school numbers up slightly in elementary, middle, high