Pa. private schools saw enrollment dip during pandemic, despite in-person options

Area private schools swung open their doors last school year. But that didn’t draw droves of families, data shows.

Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility

School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Offering in-person classes during the pandemic didn’t bring Pennsylvania private schools a big influx of students, according to a new report.

While many public school districts closed buildings during the COVID crisis, or offered only limited in-person options, many private schools swung their doors open, leading many to speculate families would come flocking.

But enrollment data crunched by Penn State’s Center for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis casts doubt on that popular narrative.

Private school enrollment in Pennsylvania fell 1.5% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, according to a policy brief by the center. It had already been on the decline prior to the pandemic — and the pandemic drop was slightly smaller than the dip from the prior year.

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That top-line data may obscure a much larger drop.

For the first time this year, the state’s private school enrollment data included 13,000 students who attend a for-profit, online high school called Penn Foster. Remove them from the analysis, according to the brief, and enrollment fell 7.1% during the pandemic. That’s larger than the decline at public schools.

“This was not some en masse transfer of people pulling their kids out of public schools and putting them into private schools because they were doing in-person learning,” said Ed Fuller, the Penn State professor who wrote the brief.

“What people said was happening in the fall just wasn’t true,” he added.

Traditional public schools saw a relatively steep 3.2% enrollment dip, according to Fuller’s analysis. But most of the drop was in kindergarten, suggesting many families opted to hold their children out of school for an extra year rather than navigate the ever-changing menu of in-person and online options.

“People just pulled their kids out because it’s an early grade. They can just repeat the grade without any social or emotional or education cost to their kid,” said Fuller. “So why not do it?”

Cyber charter schools flourished. The online schools — which are privately run and publicly funded — added more than 22,000 students, an extraordinary 59% year-over-year jump.

Even brick-and-mortar charter schools did better than their traditional public school counterparts, with enrollment holding steady. Almost the same number of students attended these schools in 2020-21 versus the prior academic year.

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Lenny McAllister, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, believes charters were able to adapt faster than large school districts and therefore found it easier to open buildings.

“They didn’t have as much bureaucracy to deal with,” said McAllister. “It’s a lot easier for one charter school to say we’re going to have Wednesdays off to clean the building or we’re going to shorten the work day.”

The Philadelphia region’s Catholic school system offered elementary school students the option to attend full-time, in person as soon as the year began.

Before the fall semester began, many independent schools told Keystone Crossroads they would give children the option to attend class in person. Administrators hoped the added flexibility would satisfy parents and prevent an enrollment exodus.

Some speculated families would leave the public system and enroll, at least temporarily, to take advantage of the in-person offerings.

Gary Niels, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, said some of the larger, more affluent private schools did add students. But smaller schools in his association bled enrollment, accelerating a trend that began before the pandemic.

“Small schools did the best they could,” Niels said. “But they didn’t quite have the resources.”

In many cases, private schools didn’t offer five days a week of full-day instruction when the 2020-21 school year began. Niels believes parents didn’t want to spend money on private school if their kids weren’t getting the full benefit. Combine that with the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, and Niels thinks some families decided to pocket their tuition money.

Among the roughly 110 schools in the Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools, enrollment dropped 4.1% in 2020-2021, Niels said. Unlike the kindergarten drop in public schools, declines in Pennsylvania private school attendance were more evenly distributed across grades, with the largest among tenth-graders.

Now the question is whether some of those families will return as the pandemic eases and schools fully reopen.

“We’re all kind of on the edge of our seats waiting to see what’s going to happen now,” said Niels.

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