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4 year old boy and smashed his piggybank
Photo by Daniel Jędzura on Adobe Stock

The Bottom Line The Great Kindergarten Recession

The Unintended Consequences of Failing to Reopen Campuses

Based on the acute enrollment decline school districts around the country are reporting, researchers estimate that upwards of half a million kindergarten-age students failed to embark on their inaugural elementary school year this fall. Parents by the masses opted to delay kindergarten for their five and six-year-old children due to the closing of school campuses and the lack of clear direction regarding school districts’ reopening plans.

The consensus among parents is that online learning is not ideal for young children. Their shorter attention span, lack of computer navigation ability, and limited reading skills (other than the rare exception) are not suitable matches with online learning. Hands-on learning and cooperative play elements with peers are foundational to these early learners. But these age-appropriate learning approaches are void when face-to-face kindergarten is instead conducted via online modalities.

Employing Scare Tactics

Public school districts that have chosen not to reopen their campuses, as other schools and essential businesses have done, are experiencing unintended consequences. Fearing a loss of revenue, superintendents are going as far as to threaten parents — saying that if they don’t enroll their students for kindergarten this year, their students won’t be well funded next year.

In a YouTube virtual school district meeting, Dr. Morcease J. Beasley, Superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools (outside of Atlanta), said sarcastically to parents: “I understand your legal right not to go to kindergarten.” Dr. Beasley then proceeded into an extended monologue outlining his loss of funding if parents don’t enroll their students in kindergarten now:

And remember this, if you enroll this year, I’m earning funding for your students for next year, and I’ll get the money next year. So, if we have a reduction in enrollment this year, that means we’ll have a reduction in funding next year when you’re ready to enroll. And you want all these services, and funds have been reduced, and then you’ll send me a fired up email saying, ‘Why am I not getting this and why am I not getting that? And why don’t we have teachers? Why don’t we have resources?’ And I’ll have to remind you it is because you chose not to enroll your children, which reduces the funding that I get the next year….I know we don’t prefer virtual learning. We will get through virtual learning eventually, but until then, we need our students enrolled…because life is going to move on.

Dr. Morcease J. Beasley, Superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools

An Alternative Approach

Instead of addressing the reduced enrollment challenge head-on, utilizing creative problem-solving as school district commander-in-chief, Dr. Beasley employs a scare tactic. This was a tremendous missed opportunity to serve families of his district. If he had alternatively asked stakeholders why they had not enrolled their kindergarten student, he could have used that information to seek a collaborative solution with parents. His approach is all too common in public schools, who often overlook the fact that parents are customers, supporting public school operations through their tax dollars.

Private schools provide a better model for how parents should be treated. If private school parents opted not to enroll their kindergarten-age child because the school decided to forego offering in-person schooling, private school administrators and admission offices would reach out individually to families in an effort to regain their business. If the health of the school’s budget for that year or future years were in jeopardy, the school would reassess their reopening plans and adjust as needed. In short, private schools understand that effectively serving families is the reason they stay in business. If private school parents were to face the lack of customer service, sarcasm, and focus on the school’s funding versus what best serves their students, as was overtly and dramatically communicated by Dr. Beasley, they would take their business elsewhere.

So, why can a public school superintendent get away with this? Primarily because of the monopoly public school districts have on the K-12 education market in situations where parents cannot afford private education and other school choice avenues are not provided. Also, school administrators’ job security by tenure policies gives Dr. Beasley significant leeway to enact ineffective or even harmful practices with limited repercussions. With a base salary over $300,000 annually, he would not retain his leadership position long in the private school world.

What’s the Rush?

Private school tuition is out of reach for most families in America. The lack of widespread school choice initiatives such as vouchers, education savings accounts, and charter schools, leave little option for families beyond their local district’s closed school. Even if these families have access to another possible school, transportation to the school may be a barrier. Because they have limited alternatives, and the thought of managing their five or six-year-old’s online school is overwhelming with their other daytime responsibilities, many parents instead are choosing to delay starting their children in kindergarten per the usual timetable. 

Many may ask, what’s the rush to start school? What will it hurt to have one more year of informal play-based learning with siblings who are also home this year due to remote learning? Weighing the options, they see advantages for their child being older among their peers, including in the arenas of cognitive development, athletics, and social dynamics. Parents seek to give their children any advantage in life they can. Who can blame them?

Furthermore, parents who are already fighting to limit screen time with their children are given further pause by the thought of enrolling their five-year to be glued to a device for several additional hours a day. In short, the value of online kindergarten is just not stacking up for many parents.

Additional Ramifications

Public schools are drawing a line in the sand concerning reopening their campuses — insisting that it’s unsafe despite the overwhelming data showing COVID-19 having minimal effect on children under that age of 18. This is to their own detriment. Not only will reduced funding be a significant issue for public schools, but other factors such as major discrepancies between this year and next in classroom spacing and staffing needs will have to be addressed at the time they choose to reopen.

Furthermore, learning readiness variation will be a long-term challenge. Students will begin kindergarten with greater disparities in preparedness. This situation will be extended into first grade, as some students will bypass a year of foundational kindergarten learning and move right into first grade. Still, another challenge will involve seven-year-olds in the same kindergarten class as five-year-old students — the unintended negative consequences of having students of such differing size, and social-emotional developmental differences could be enormous.

Ultimately, the students are the ones who will suffer from in-person kindergarten not being offered to them on schedule. School districts ought to seek the betterment of students rather than forcing families to enroll and “get through virtual learning” to keep their budgets out of the red. Where have we gone wrong as a nation when providing high-quality education and what is best for our children — and the future of our country — is not of paramount importance?

Keri D. Ingraham

Senior Fellow and Director, American Center for Transforming Education
Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education. She is also a Senior Fellow at Independent Women’s Forum. Dr. Ingraham has been a guest on Fox News multiple times. Her articles have been published by The Wall Street Journal, New York Post, The Federalist, Real Clear Education, The Washington Times, The Epoch Times, Washington Examiner, National Review, The American Spectator, Daily Caller, The Seattle Times, Puget Sound Business Journal, The Daily Signal, and a host of other media outlets. Fox News has featured her work. Prior to joining Discovery Institute, she spent nearly two decades leading within the field of education as a national consultant, requested conference speaker, head of school, virtual and hybrid academy director, administrator, classroom teacher, and athletic coach. She authored multiple chapters for the book, Sketching a New Conservative Education Agenda, published in 2022. In 2019, she was invited as a contributing author for the book, MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education and co-authored “From Gutenberg to 5G.” Dr. Ingraham was awarded the George W. Selig Doctoral Fellowship in 2013. The following year she received the “World Changer in the Field of Education” award from Regent University.
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