Writing in The Progressive, Carol Burris raised an important question: Where are the 1.3 million children who didn’t return to school after schools reopened? Burris is the executive director of the Network for Public Education.

As she points out, the lobbyists for the privatizers claim that they must be in charter schools or voucher schools, but Burris shows this is not accurate. Some may be homeschooled; but the data on the number of children being homeschooled is inadequate to know how many children are being tutored at home.

Burris writes:

Between the fall of 2019 and 2021, 1.3 million children left the American public school system, according toEducation Week. For those who care about the welfare of children, this sharp decline is worrisome. We know that enrollment declineswere the steepest in large cities, where our neediest students reside and where COVID-19 was more devastating.

How many have dropped out, working in the underground economy or languishing at home without schooling? The honest answer is that there is no comprehensive accounting of where (or if) all of those 1.3 million children are now being schooled.

However, what should be a national concern centered on the welfare of children has instead become promotional material for those who wish to eliminate public schools. The libertarian right and its allies, including the Center for Education Reform, have chalked up the decline to a story of unhappy public school parents exercising school choice. But is it?

According to a 2020 report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), “hundreds of thousands of families switched to charter schools during the first full school year of the pandemic.” On the surface, that is correct. But the report avoids the elephant in the room—the kinds of charter schools that gained enrollment during this period.

The 2020 charter enrollment spike that NAPCS reported was largely due to increased enrollment in low-quality online charter schools, as I detailed in an analysis for The Washington Post. Enrollment in these schools increased by 175,260 students during the 2020-2021 school year, representing more than 70 percent of the NAPCS’s reported enrollment growth.

The increase in enrollment in online charter schools that occurred during the early years of the pandemic is part of a long-term trend. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) started tracking the online school sector. In the pre-pandemic years, between 2013 and 2020, online schools accounted for 25 percent of charter enrollment growth, according to the center’s data.

In 2022, NAPCS published another report that presented a dizzying array of data, some of which contradicted the previous year’s report, to make the case that charters had retained the students they gained in the pandemic shift.

According to that report, in fall 2021, there were only 1,436 fewer students in charters compared to 33,308 fewer students in public schools than there were in fall 2020. The most recent NCES numbers tell a different story: According to that data, charter school enrollment dropped by 5,323 students in 2021, while public school enrollment increased by 83,323 students—small shifts but nevertheless important to note.

So, did charter school enrollment go up during the pandemic? Yes. Was this a seismic shift? No….

Leaders of the anti-public school movement promote bootleg homeschools and “micro-schools” as innovative alternatives to public schools, using declines in test scores as the rationale for abandoning the public system. Ironically, however, homeschoolers are not required to provide any evidence of student learning in most states. This includes Arizona, whose ESA voucher program is taxpayer-funded with no standards. Parents can awarda high school diploma based on any criteria they want. According to Ed Choice, the average Arizona ESA account value on January 17, 2023 exceeded $15,500 per year per student. (On January 18, the site updated that figure to $11,332.)

This is akin to an insurance company giving the parent of an ill child a payout to spend on a cure—with no stipulation that the parent goes to a licensed physician or that anyone reports back on the child’s health.

Certainly, there are responsible homeschoolers who have developed sound programs to educate and socialize their child. But without requirements to provide sound evidence of learning, a sudden spike in homeschooling should be a cause for alarm, not celebration.

While libertarian advocacy groups call for a “de-centralized network of schools,” to resemble what existed for American schooling in the nineteenth century, before Horace Mann, the truth is that before it became a universal system of “government funded and operated schools,” schooling in America was an uncoordinated, free-for-all that left most children undereducated, which is exactly where the contemporary school choice movement is headed.

Instead, what we should be concentrating on is locating those 1.3 million children and ensuring they are both educated and safe.