Are the worst educational outcomes on record causing declining enrollment?

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder announced a need to trim 5% of its staff in the coming school year in response to an enrollment-driven deficit estimated at $17 million. The media dutifully reported that the district faces a “budget deficit,” but that is not the real truth. APS has lost the faith of parents while families with escape routes are abandoning the district.

According to the district’s own budget data, APS is spending more than ever before. In fiscal year 2022, the district spent $1,658,589,579 to educate 72,500 students. That comes to $22,877.10 per student per academic year. In fiscal year 2020, APS reported enrollment of 79,366; that’s an 8% enrollment loss in just two years.

Much of the blame can be placed at the feet of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham who banned students from classrooms for a full year. Unfortunately, the “virtual” product from APS was lacking. Add in widespread reports of discipline problems at APS and two deadly shootings at schools this year alone and it is no wonder parents are looking for options. While data are tough to come by, anecdotal evidence is that families have embraced private schools, home school, and charters. 

Can APS get those students back or is that even a worthwhile goal? Other states, including some that often join New Mexico among the lowest performing states in education, are embracing choice and competition. West Virginia which now boasts the most freedom-centric educational choice program in the country. In the mountain state, K-12 students and their families have a number of school choice options, from education savings accounts to homeschooling and intra-district and inter-district public school choice via open enrollment.

Education savings accounts, like the ones in West Virginia, allow families to use program funds to send their children to private schools or customize an education plan to fit their needs. With ESAs, the funds follow students, whereas funds usually follow districts and institutions. It’s like the Pell Grant for college students: the money goes to the student, who then uses those funds at the school of their choice.

If the Pell Grant example is not enough, why not talk about food stamps? Government rules do not force families to use food stamps exclusively at WalMart. Families are free to choose where to spend those benefits. Schools should not be any different.

Throughout the country, bureaucratic decision making forced schools to pivot to virtual learning in an effort to curb the spread, but research now shows how remote learning hurts students’ academic performance. A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research highlights the negative impacts, finding that “pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in person instruction”.

The COVID pandemic only exacerbated New Mexico’s education deficit. Even before the pandemic, New Mexico’s education outcomes were dismal. US News ranked the state as 50th in education. The land of enchantment has likely solidified its position in last place for the foreseeable future unless something dramatic changes.

Not every school district in New Mexico performs as poorly as Albuquerque Public Schools, but every district would benefit from comprehensive school choice programs. The statewide solution of school choice would deliver decision making to the most local level: parents and students get to choose the option that works best for them.

This would directly empower families, but school choice actually improves public schools, too. When public schools have to compete directly with private and charter schools, they immediately work to improve the quality of the service they provide. All of these institutions find ways to be more efficient with their budget, delivering more funding to the classroom while improving educational outcomes.

Rather than taking money away from students and families to give to bloated public school districts, that money should be given back to families. School choice does not defund public schools: public schools defund families.

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