Public School Enrollment Is in Decline. But Don’t Give Up Just Yet

What makes a “good” school? Is it the teacher-student ratio? The amount of funding it receives? The quality of its education? Its test scores? All of these things are vital, yes. But often, what drives a “good” school is the community that comes alongside it. 

Our schools provide services far broader than just teaching individual children within a community. Instead, schools serve and educate the community at large, giving them the resources they need to flourish, first and foremost by forming and molding that community’s youngest members. 

In a 2005 article for the Journal of Instructional Psychology, researchers Janell Wilson, Charles Notar, and Sandra Machen begin their study on parental involvement in the classroom by noting how important the local school is to the community: “Schools are seldom able to be much better than their neighborhoods and surrounding communities. Neighborhoods and communities are seldom able to stay healthy without good schools.” A thriving school brings innumerable benefits to its neighborhood and to the families in its school community.    

What does this look like? Research has shown that the key marker of student success is not the income level of their parents, nor the socioeconomic status of their family, nor the test scores of their school, but rather, the level of involvement from their parents. This involvement can look like many things — homework help after school, attending school-wide events, talking with teachers, or even volunteering in classrooms. Involved families also lead to stronger children and stronger community relationships. But due to a decaying sense of families’ trust in their schools, parental involvement in schools is also at risk. 

A family for one

I spoke with North Carolina educators from both private and public schools about the community and family involvement (or the lack of such) they notice in their classrooms. (Some names have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Rachael, a special education teacher in a Title I public elementary school in North Carolina, told Common Good, “When parents take school seriously, their children take notice, and they begin to take themselves more seriously.” 

This observation aligns with larger studies on the subject. The CDC notes that parental involvement “reinforces children’s health and learning in multiple settings — at home, in school, in out-of-school programs, and in the community.” A 2002 study found that students whose parents were involved in their education were more likely to have higher attendance, better grades, and healthier social and behavioral skills, regardless of the family’s income or social status.  

A family for all

But parental involvement can do far more than improve the success of a single student. Instead, research shows that involved families can boost the performance of all the children in a school, rather than just a few — rather than just their own. 

Haley, an elementary private school teacher, recounts when her school’s families came together to support a family whose apartment had just burned down: “Parents and families alike raised a bunch of money to help them. If there’s any kind of personal tragedy, people gather together as a community to help them with whatever they need, financially or timewise.”

Involved parents can give time to teachers, allowing teachers to spread their instructional time where it’s most needed. If able, they can provide funds to under-resourced extracurriculars or supply closets, allowing more children to receive a broader and more dynamic education. Finally, involved parents help create a sense of camaraderie and community by building a network, be it formal or informal, of interested and engaged families.

Involved families are an important part of private schools, providing time, resources, and a sense of community, but they’re even more critical to the success of public schools, which often serve neighborhoods that may already be lacking in all three. 

A dangerous exodus

As many families choose to leave public schools — nearly 1.27 million children having left the public school system since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, a trend that’s only expected to continue — the families left behind may have little time or energy to spend in their child’s school.

Decreasing enrollment likely means less hands on deck. Especially since time, resources, or capacity for parental involvement aren’t available to everyone. “With some families, both parents are working. There’s no one who is at home,” says Megan, a North Carolina teacher in a public elementary school. “Or maybe there’s a single parent, and they have to do what they have to do to put food on the table.”

Rachael agrees: “Our parents love their children; they advocate for them, but many of them are working several jobs to stay afloat and provide for their kids. And so the families at my school are not as involved as a teacher would hope.” 

Again, any parental involvement at all benefits more than just the child of the parent(s) involved; the benefits extend to the students whose parents are unavailable or who depend on the school more than others. 

But parental involvement in schools is also at risk due to a decaying sense of families’ trust in their schools. And a sense of trust — in a teacher, in a school, and in a student — is crucial to the success of a school and of its students.

“In the changing political and social climate of our time, we’ve seen a lot of parental involvement channeled into deep suspicion of teachers or deep suspicion of schools,” says Rachael. “And that weakens the school, the parent-teacher relationship, and it teaches the kids to mistrust the school as well.”

The noise of the parental rights movement and associated curriculum controversies can easily drown out what teachers really need from families — their involvement and trust. Parents need to see teachers — and work with them — as those who greatly care about the success of their child, the children in their community, rather than as arbiters of any “culture war.”

For parents, it’s value in one’s investment and investment in something valuable. “Parents should get to know the teachers and trust them,” says Haley. “And then trust that we have their student’s best interests at heart as well in helping them learn and grow in the classroom.”

“[When] families trust the school, they trust us to help their children learn. And they’ll trust us when they say that their child is struggling at something, or that their child is disruptive, and we need their help figuring out what their child needs,” says Rachael. 

A faithful response

As public schools continue to face declining attendance (enrollment down “roughly 85 of the nation’s largest 100 public-school districts” since the start of the pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal), a corresponding lack of funding, and eroding trust, it may be easiest to leave the public school system entirely, as so many families have.

But if we see it another way, this widening gap also presents an opportunity for parents to serve and bless their communities in public schools by choosing to send their children to them. In a conversation with professor Jonathan Pennington on education, author Jen Wilkin elaborates on this: 

Philippians tells us [that] each of you should look not just to your own interests, but to the interests of others. And there’s no such thing as a decision that’s made just for our families. In fact, even having the gift of the decision at all means that you’re a person with more choices than some people. And those who don’t have a choice of where they will educate their children will be impacted by your presence.


Wilkin sees, for her family, public schooling as a way to better invest in her community, doing all that she can to assist in its flourishing: “I’m going to try with everything that I can to make sure that not just my own children are thriving, but that the children in my community, my area of influence, are thriving as well.” 

As Christians, the schools in our communities should be one of our most immediate mission fields, and not only as a place to share the gospel. Not a call for children to become little missionaries, but a chance for us, as parents or committed community members, to demonstrate the gospel by getting involved, especially in schools that already serve at-risk communities. Our schools are a way to build flourishing communities and families from-the-ground-up. It’s a direct response to the call that Paul gives us in Galatians 5:13-14: 

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”


Getting involved

Parents bring much-needed time and talent to underfunded public schools, providing manpower to understaffed classrooms and resources to underfunded subjects and extracurriculars. But to be involved in a school, be it your child’s or your neighborhood’s, may look different than you realize — there’s no need to immediately run for PTA president (though this can certainly be helpful).

“My biggest plea is for those who have the time, talent, or finances, would be that you go to your child’s school or the local public school and just be present,” says Rachael. “We have people who can read books for struggling readers, shelve library books, or help [staff] by just filing papers.”

“Parents can always volunteer in their kid’s classroom — that’s so helpful to teachers,” says Megan. But getting involved can also be “just reaching out to the teacher personally and asking: How is my kid doing? How can I support my kid at home?” 

A thriving school can be a blessing to its community, serving as a neighborhood builder, a trusted source of education, and a source of pride for even more than its academic success. Our schools are foundations of our communities and key partners in strengthening and creating flourishing families. Can we surround them and serve them?

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