School choice remains popular following COVID closures. What it means for students and schools.

Magda Gomez spent her Friday evening in Riverside, California, at a school fair set up at a church where about 300 families learned about different options for educating their kids: charter schools, private or parochial schools, homeschooling, public schools beyond their traditional neighborhood school and even so-called  learning pods.

"We have here all of these choices," Gomez said in an interview, comparing the school choice options in America with the lack of choice in Mexico, where she grew up.  She homeschooled her two daughters at first instead of sending them to a nearby Santa Ana, California, public school for seven years, until the girls chose to attend public high schools, she said, to give them a "better education."

Similar scenes played out all over the nation last week, during an annual messaging and advocacy event that launched 12 years ago: National School Choice Week. The campaign, which champions alternatives to traditional public schooling, echoed political platforms from the November election advocating for school choice.

"School choice is critical to parents and kids. It is the only way we will be able to lead in education," said newly elected state Oklahoma Superintendent Ryan Walters during school choice week. Lawmakers in his state blocked a school voucher bill last year. Vouchers generally allow parents to use public money on private school tuition or other education expenses.

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"Oklahoma must and will have the most expansive school choice program in the country,” Walters said.

How are states expanding school choice?

Some lawmakers argue that by adding or expanding access to vouchers, charters and other school choice options, they are putting into practice what parents want.

In Utah, lawmakers last week approved a bill that sets aside $42 million for a statewide universal school voucher program. Republican Gov. Spencer Cox signed the bill into law over the weekend. Years ago, Utah voters overturned a voucher law by putting the law on the ballot, but that can't happen this time around because the measure passed by such wide margins.

Iowa's Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds last week signed a school voucher bill that will allow spending millions of public dollars on private schools. Reynolds helped elect new members to the state legislature after a similar measure failed last session.

What do parents want?

Recent survey results by the group that launched National School Choice Week show interest in school choice grew during the pandemic, and has held up.

More than half of the 3,820 parents of school-aged children the group surveyed either have considered or are considering a new school. A majority of Hispanic, Latino and Black parents – about 65% – said they were looking into or thinking about a new learning environment for their kids, compared with 46% of all white parents.

Alison Ray Cavanagh picks up her daughter, Elsa,  from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in 2021.
Alison Ray Cavanagh picks up her daughter, Elsa, from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in 2021.

Krissia Campos Spivey, director of National School Choice Week's Conoce tus Opciones Escolares, said she's seen parents act on those feelings: A growing number of Hispanic and Latino families are reaching out to her group about school choice since a website to help those families launched in September.

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"It's not that people are really angry with or hate their school," she said. "I think during the pandemic, parents realized they have more options to educate their children."

The National School Choice Awareness Foundation's survey results show that in the last year, 32% of parents considered public charter schools, 29% considered private or parochial schools, 23% considered homeschooling, 21% considered online schools and 4% considered micro schools or pod learning.

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What is school choice?

Parents in most states have some choices about where they send their kids to school. They can choose among neighborhood schools, request a transfer to another public school in or outside of their district, a charter school, a private school or homeschooling.

But only in some states can parents apply for a voucher, which allows them to use public education dollars to pay for an alternative setting.

Advocacy and lobbying for statewide universal voucher programs, especially in red states, is underway, including in Oklahoma. The highly politically charged issue has become a flashpoint. A lobbyist pushing for the voucher bill in Utah recently apologized for saying she wanted to destroy public education.

What's the effect on neighborhood schools? 

Some public school employees, including teachers, their unions and some parents, feel that school choice options, in particular, vouchers, will drain resources from campuses that are required to accept all students.

Colorado's largest school districts are dealing with financial woes as student enrollment continues to fall for a variety of reasons, for example.

Kirk Hartzler, superintendent of Oklahoma's Union Public Schools, previously told USA TODAY he's concerned about what will happen to his schools if a bill similar to Utah's passes in his state.

The state teachers union in Utah is exploring “every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education," in response to the state's new choice bill, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Why are parents considering something besides neighborhood schools?

Enrollment in public schools declined by 3% nationwide during the first year of pandemic-related school closures, in part due to parent dissatisfaction during remote learning. Some students simply disappeared from public school rosters.

Public school enrollment was unchanged between fall 2020 and fall 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, but more recent figures are not yet available. (Enrollment is also expected to continue to fall due to declining birth rates in the U.S.)

Teaching at a charter school in New York City in 2021.
Teaching at a charter school in New York City in 2021.

Gomez said some of the parents she spoke with over the weekend told her they're concerned about school safety and the quality of instruction their kids are receiving in public schools.

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Where are kids going to school?

Families are moving kids from their neighborhood public schools and enrolling them in charter schools, other public schools in their cities, private or parochial schools or homeschooling programs.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that charter school enrollment held steady from the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years for the 2021-22 school year, hanging onto about 240,000 students who shifted to charters early in the pandemic.

"The adjustment ... appears to be a new normal,' instead of a temporary reaction to turbulent times," the group said.

Homeschooling has also been on the rise, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It's not clear how private school enrollment has fared since the pandemic. The National Center for Education Statistics is expected to share some data on that later this year.

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How school choice's rising popularity affects students and schools