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Public schools see fewer enrolled kindergartners. Where’d they go?

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First grade students prepare for class at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California on November 16, 2020, where pre-kindergarten to Second Grade students in need of special services returned to the classroom today for in-person instruction.

There's been an uptick in kindergarteners taken out of public schools over the past year. Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

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Among the many things the pandemic has disrupted, education is near the top of the list — public school education, in particular, and enrollment in public schools, specifically.

Some families have chosen other options, like homeschooling or private school. Research out this week shows that shift has been especially pronounced in younger grades.

In Michigan, kindergarten enrollment in public schools dropped 10% last fall. And it’s not just happening in Michigan.

Last fall semester, Kevin Stange was talking to other parents with kids in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. A lot of them were planning on pulling their kids out. It got him thinking: “‘I wonder if you can see that in the data,’ and it turns out you really can,” he said.

Stange is a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and an author of that working paper. He found that statewide kindergarten enrollment in public schools fell by the thousands. Without those students in the system, it’s hard to know where they went.

Looking at first-graders gave him a clue. “Something like 2% of that group stayed home for homeschool, and that’s just a huge increase,” Stange said.

Los Angeles Unified has dealt with a similar enrollment challenge, according to Jenny Hontz with parent advocacy group Speak Up. Hontz has talked with parents considering their options, including one who kept her kindergartener home.

“I don’t know if she’ll ever come back to the school system,” Hontz said. The pandemic disruption has set a portion of young kids on another path, she added.

The growth of homeschooling is the topic of a conference that Jim Mason, vice president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, is sponsoring this week in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Oh yeah, well, we’re deluged with all these people,” Mason said. “How do we even keep up with it?” The number of homeschoolers in the network has basically doubled, Mason said. Now, they‘re working to keep them there.

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