Private School Enrollment Rising in America Since Onset of Pandemic 

July 18, 2022 by Kate Michael
Private School Enrollment Rising in America Since Onset of Pandemic 
(Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — There was a tiny dip and then it really flipped — private school enrollment, that is. While private schools had to market themselves strongly before COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March 2020, as the pandemic has worn on registration numbers at private grade schools continue to see an upward trend with no signs of stopping, even as the health crisis tapers.

Some of the shift is tied to political ideologies, such as debates over masking requirements in public schools. And much of the trend towards private schools is often preliminarily explained as a result of public school closures and their resulting need to rely on remote learning while private schools were able to remain open for in-person education.

But a few recent polls suggest that there may be more underlying a national trend towards private schooling.

The CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., released survey results that show private school enrollment gains up to 53% during the COVID years, even after its private school closure tracker showed that, pre-COVID, many private schools appeared to be in precarious positions.

A recent Gallup poll that surveyed public confidence in a number of international institutions found that these enrollment gains and momentum toward private education may not have been just a short-term need for physical learning spaces. 

Americans’ confidence in U.S. public schools is dwindling, the poll showed, with only 28% saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution. 

“Our switch from public to private was a triage move that happened in September of 2020, and although I was thinking of it as a one-year thing … now we’re staying private for both kids,” a parent in Pennsylvania, told The Well News.

Similarly, Sara Abbott, a parent outside of Boston, Massachusetts, moved her three boys to private school and plans to keep them there through high school graduation.

“It was definitely the level of education — or rather the level of expectation — as our driver, but the lack of in-person learning [during COVID] contributed to that,” she said. 

But there are those who will go back to public schooling now that children are returning to school buildings.

“My step daughter did a year at a tiny private school in 2020-2021, so she could be in-person. She is back in public school this year,” Katie Edelman from Washington, D.C., told us.

While high cost, a smaller range of subjects to pursue, and the possible requirement of passing an entry exam to be admitted are sometimes cited as downsides, private school advocates, including those we spoke with, often mention reduced worries about safety, increased exposure to discipline, smaller class sizes, and strong environments for high academic achievement as benefits outweighing any of those concerns. 

And growing enrollment has public schools operating at capacity as perhaps never before. 

“It was ridiculous last year and this year!” Kristin McMahon, an admissions and advancement director for St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, a small Catholic private school in Long Green Valley, Maryland, told The Well News. 

This Pre-K3 through eighth grade private school is located between two counties in rural/suburban Baltimore County, Maryland, and “pulls from both, with both of the immediate ZIP codes having been known for their strong public schools,” according to McMahon.

“In 2020-2021, due to the pandemic and shutdown of public schools, our applications skyrocketed by over 40%. This was directly correlated with COVID and seen across the board within [the Archdiocese of Baltimore], but continued on this past year for enrollment,” she said. “The increase is also trending high with interest for applications to enroll for the 2023-2024 academic year.”

Ashley said there is no pattern in her school’s records and data for when a student will make the switch from public to private. Sometimes they come in from kindergarten, but also now as late as the seventh grade.   

For the first time in many years, St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, as well as so many other private schools, have a waiting list for all grades.

“In my findings, people are still leery to put full trust back into the public school systems,” she said. “Most people are looking for the promise of a constant schedule (we did not close during COVID at all), smaller classes, and have decided that their children’s education[al] experience will be better in a private/parochial setting. 

“I do not foresee this as just being a short trend,” McMahon said. “I believe that [COVID] jump-started people wanting more structure and reliability.”

Kate can be reached at [email protected]

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