Of all the social inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted in the United States, the crisis of public education is among the most intractable. Reports of staffing shortages and declining enrollment—twin problems especially acute for poorer districts contending with slashed budgets and meager classroom resources—have persisted even after the introduction of vaccines for children. With most state funding tied to student enrollment, shrinking attendance means smaller budgets to meet fixed operating costs and fewer funds to attract and retain talented educators. A fiscal calamity awaits public schools once pandemic-related federal assistance ends in September 2024.
Left unaddressed, the crisis portends the return of the “K-shaped” economic recovery—in which the well-off see strong gains and those already struggling experience more instability and income loss—that economists warned about in the early days of the pandemic. The actions of congressional Democrats and other party officials have been discouraging. In late 2021, House Democrats abandoned a proposed $100 billion for modernizing school infrastructure during negotiations over President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation. (The subsequent Inflation Reduction Act did not include meaningful provisions for education.) Absent a political reckoning that extends federal funding to restore programs and classroom resources to pre-pandemic levels, let alone make significant improvements, schools could face a new round of disenrollment at a moment when they are already struggling to recover the approximately 1.4 million pupils who withdrew during the first year of the pandemic.
This crisis is a result of sweeping and protracted disinvestment. According to one report, state governments cut education budgets by a cumulative $600 billion in the decade following the Great Recession—a stark illustration of how neoliberal governance has molded the nation’s youth. Too often, public education is treated as a particular silo of social policy rather than a critical engine of long-term investment and shared prosperity. Highly interconnected with housing, zoning, and tax policies, public education is an incomparable measure of whether communities are thriving—and whether they are promoting stratification or inclusive development. Yet while it is often considered a key priority of the liberal left, short-term political calculations and the interests of economic elites continue to undermine public education in not only red regions, but blue ones, too. To successfully dislodge neoliberal governance at the state and municipal level, progressives will have to confront one of the central crises straining their coalition.
Public education is at once a crucial measure of national development—a political investment in generating an educated populace capable of social and economic reproduction—and a prime window into how socioeconomic inequality is reinforced across generations and geography. When recessions lead to sharp sectoral downturns felt disproportionately in particular regions, cuts to education are among the first solutions proposed. These austerity measures can disadvantage working-class communities for years to come. Poor rankings and school closures heighten the risk of blight and small business failure, leading to longer commutes for families that cannot, or refuse to, leave their neighborhood. Local middle-class families, meanwhile, search for schooling alternatives or move; young professionals who aspire to start families resolve to stomach rents in more affluent districts. Simply put, decent schools are anchors that attract long-term residents and local businesses, ensuring further community investments from the financial sector, large-scale industry, public-private development corporations, and attentive politicians. The fate of public education is therefore among the most crucial issues for local and regional development.
Compared to other national concerns such as defense or healthcare, public education is rooted in, and to a great extent determined by, regional political economy. Overwhelmingly reliant on a combination of state funding and local property taxes, public schools normally receive less than 10 percent of their budgets from the federal government. Thus, while the crisis of America’s public schools is national in scope, the depth of the challenge varies across different districts, cities, and states. In 2017, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that K–12 funding remained below 2008 levels in twenty-nine states, with the steepest cuts in conservative-leaning states, especially those that had slashed income taxes. With few exceptions, Republican legislators’ zealous quest to gut public education, often under the thin guise of promoting so-called school choice, shows no signs of diminishing.
Yet new data suggests a more complex picture: from 2009 to 2020, enrollment rose primarily in the red states of the South, Midwest, and West, while it declined or remained static in most blue states. Significant racial disparities in educational opportunity, moreover, are particularly evident in the liberal Northeast, as well as Illinois and a handful of other Democratic-leaning states, complicating the facile notion that the trajectory of the nation’s public schools simply depends on whether a region is red or blue.
The pupil drain in blue counties and states raises the stakes for liberal constituencies that have been galvanized in recent years by movements for racial and economic justice. The numbers for major cities are worrisome: in New York City, around 77 percent of schools have seen enrollment decline since the start of the pandemic; in Boston, total enrollment has dropped by 15 percent since 2014; in Chicago, it has dropped by nearly 20 percent since 2012–2013; and in Seattle, it has dropped by 6.4 percent since the pandemic began. Projections for the next decade are similarly disconcerting. In San Francisco, enrollment is expected to fall 8 percent by 2027; in Los Angeles, the board of education anticipates enrollment will contract by an astounding 30 percent.
What are the forces behind shrinking enrollment and related shortfalls in blue regions? There are a range of factors, including historically low birthrates and reduced immigration. Yet there are at least four phenomena that have exacerbated the trend. In interrelated ways, migration stemming from the affordable housing crisis, persistent homelessness, the spread of poverty beyond major cities, and the bipartisan “school choice” movement have undermined public education, especially over the last decade.
Severe housing shortages and exorbitant rents have fueled a migration out of metropolitan areas in the Northeast, California, Illinois, and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific Northwest. The national housing stock deficit is estimated to be between 3.8 million and 5.2 million homes. Those figures, however, rely on a concept of “affordability” that elides the precarity of the working poor; other estimates peg the shortage of affordable housing at 6.8 million units. They are also unlikely to incorporate the ill-reported growth of illegal basement units, over-occupancy among immigrant families, and the need to find permanent housing for at least 580,000 homeless people. Even as the problem has spread to other regions, the lack of affordable housing continues to beleaguer coastal cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon. The pandemic appears to have accelerated migration to hubs of the Southeast and Southwest with less expensive real estate markets, with Black Northerners and younger people joining the usual flow of retirees. What’s more, lagging wage growth and the spread of the gig economy in major cities have contributed to the “suburbanization” of poverty. Low-income families and immigrants are moving to less urban zip codes in search of cheaper rent and more space. But contracting enrollment in major cities is not necessarily offset by corresponding growth in the suburbs.
These trends are an indictment of local zoning laws that depress housing construction in blue states—and also attest more broadly to the unevenness and unsustainability of the neoliberal growth model. Since at least the Great Recession, the primary engines of national economic growth have been major metropolitan areas that are predominantly Democratic, the same areas plagued by fundamental cost-of-living crises. Working-class families that persevere in blue cities because of deep-rooted attachments or stable employment are beset by the same spiraling housing costs and insufficient housing supply that compel others to leave. Successful efforts to raise the minimum wage have not measurably dented inequality. Caught between struggling schools on the one hand and the fear of displacement on the other, many families of color that once counted on a liberal commitment to public education are contending with the fact that public schools are still very economically and racially segregated—a problem that has notably worsened in the Northeast.
Declining birthrates, meanwhile, are intimately linked to perceptions of affordability. Depopulation is strongly associated with rural America, where skeletal local economies and deaths of despair have depressed family formation. But staggering rents in major coastal cities have made the costs of starting a family prohibitive for more and more couples, leading to delays in planned pregnancies and even reconsiderations of the feasibility of having children. There are, of course, myriad reasons for lower birthrates, ranging from career concerns to deep anxiety over climate change. However, without clear policy incentives, including paid family leave and universal pre-K, there is no reason to believe major cities and their respective school districts will easily regain the hundreds of thousands of residents who, benefiting suddenly from remote work options, fled at the height of the pandemic.
Disenrollment is also linked to homelessness, which began to climb again in 2016 after a temporary reduction in the surge caused by the foreclosure crisis and Great Recession. While the number of students who experienced homelessness in the 2020–2021 school year was 14 percent lower than the previous year, nearly 1.1 million students were still affected, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. And although the Department for Housing and Urban Development recently announced a 6 percent decline in homelessness from 2020 to 2022 among families with children—with a total decline of 36 percent since 2010—this progress is in jeopardy amid soaring rents, the elimination of the expanded Child Tax Credit of 2021, and the loss of most emergency protections for renters. (In August 2021, the Supreme Court ended the federal eviction moratorium; moratoriums in New York and California ended in 2022.) At best, these reductions amount to checkered progress. In New York City, for example, the number of families with children in city homeless shelters steadily increased over 2022; in California, homelessness has continued to rise, disproportionately affecting Latinos.
Many working-class families who were uprooted by the pandemic are still in flux, either due to the loss of a breadwinner, affliction with long COVID, disease and injury now showing up in excess mortality rates, or the search for better economic opportunities. In some cases, these families did not receive expanded unemployment insurance due to immigration status, persistent difficulties in processing insurance claims, or because their breadwinners were essential workers with financial imperatives to work through the early stages of the pandemic. Disenrollment could abate in the near term if some of these families were to find stable housing, but there is no way of knowing whether the districts and schools that were already struggling beforehand will rebound. Some districts might ultimately swell, presenting a new set of challenges for all but the most prosperous and exclusive school zones, while others will face closure or consolidation. In the meantime, thousands of students from poor families may never complete secondary school; in turn, many will defer pursuit of a GED, vocational training, and college.
For many families, the school closures and temporary switch to remote learning brought on by the pandemic prompted choices that may further stall a rebound in enrollment. The number of homeschooled students now stands at around 3.1 million, the majority of whom would otherwise be in public school. This figure, which spiked during the height of the pandemic to nearly 5 million, could persist if struggling schools cannot find ways to attract more students and receive more funding.
Other alternatives beckon the better off. After ebbing for several years, private school enrollment rose by 19 percent from 2020 to 2021 to nearly 7 million students. Increasing economic and racial diversity in the suburbs may also boost private school enrollment among white property-owning residents who are apprehensive about changing demographics, including an increase in renters. These residents may likewise react to endogenous increases in local poverty arising from the spread of minimum-wage jobs and regional deindustrialization. Either way, by pulling students out of public schools, more affluent suburban families narrow the political base for raising taxes and reforming zoning laws much as urban NIMBYs do.
The long-term growth in charter school enrollment is yet another troubling sign that more and more families are making a decisive exit from traditional public schools. Over the last decade, the number of charter schools grew to 7,800, a more than 50 percent increase; according to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the sector has gained approximately 240,000 students since the pandemic began. Despite conservatives’ affinity for charter schools, this growth has not been exclusive to Republican-dominated states. Strong in California, the charter movement has gained steam in parts of the Northeast and in other blue and purple states. Ballooning enrollment in charter schools, as critics have warned since the Clinton administration, is an insidious driver of inequality, not least because these schools typically benefit from a combination of public funding and private philanthropy. The covert advantage enjoyed by charter schools exemplifies the neoliberal ethos that pervades most public-private partnerships. When public education has not been under direct attack by libertarians or the evangelical right, it has been stealthily hollowed out by pro-market alliances under the pretense of enhancing consumer choice and responding to the diverse needs of underserved communities—even though a number of studies indicate that charter schools may reinforce de facto segregation between local schools.
Charter schools pose a real threat to traditional public education precisely because they have successfully mobilized politicians from both parties around the premise that competition improves learning outcomes. Given that charter schools are tuition-free, they are indeed in direct competition with public schools; by siphoning off students, including those from wealthy backgrounds, public schools lose not only funding but socioeconomic diversity. The widespread problem of staff shortages is compounded by the loss of funds, weakening teacher unions—a key Democratic-leaning constituency that has been undermined by the charter school movement and has long weathered episodic tax revolts by the upper-middle class. Charter schools gaining pupils at the expense of regular public schools perpetuates a decades-old narrative that public schools are failing America’s youth. This only assists the large philanthropies and conservative megadonors behind the charter school movement. They subvert public education’s standing as a sacrosanct public good to further insulate the rich from democratic oversight.
Outside federal action inconceivable under a Republican House, efforts to reverse these developments will depend on the Democrats’ cross-class coalition supporting a reckoning over inequality in liberal strongholds. Many of the factors behind the education crisis, however, highlight the tensions percolating on the liberal left in an era in which occasional reforms have failed to transform blue states into robust laboratories of progressivism. While nearly every political issue is now nationalized, public education is one of the few issues determined by local politics, with its attendant power brokers, grassroots activists, and respective YIMBY and NIMBY camps.
Unlike telegraphing support for immigrant rights, climate action, or even a living wage, the case for strengthening public education is a direct test of whether upper-income liberals can tolerate policies that go against their material interests. Indeed, any serious attempt to combat regressive educational outcomes will entail not just more taxes on the rich and upper-middle class, but a willingness to attack asset price inflation. Building more housing alongside fighting for new rent control measures would at the very least undermine a status quo politics of upward redistribution based, in part, on housing scarcity. At the same time, progressive forces must also push for assessing property values among the top 10 percent much more accurately—a formidable challenge for a Democratic coalition that has recently increased its vote share in wealthy counties and among top-earners.
While left-wing insurgencies can be credited with some of the policy changes of the last two years, they have not coalesced into a force that assails inequality in blue regions. And though equity in education is merely one element of the struggle to depart from neoliberalism, it uniquely illuminates a host of other policy commitments. Sitting at the intersection of the liberal belief in equality of opportunity and the construction—and delimitation—of social citizenship, public education has proven to be one of the few enduring symbols of what Daniel Amsterdam calls the U.S. “civic welfare state.” After birthright citizenship, the right to an education is one of the most profound creeds of American democracy, a lodestar of positive rights in a country with a stubborn tradition of negative liberty.
This collective right is refracted through the United States’ particular emphasis on individualism and personal merit. In the liberal imagination, public schools are the wellspring of opportunity under democratic capitalism, the one plausible source of genuine meritocracy in an economy dominated by nepotism, intergenerational transfers of wealth, and the elite networks of private universities and law schools. At the same time, they are also undeniably a mechanism of social sorting that leaves the majority of the working poor at the mercy of the market and a parsimonious welfare state. To build social democracy in our cities and states therefore not only demands an end to this binary—it depends on transforming the political economy of public education in America.
Justin H. Vassallo is a writer and researcher who specializes in American political development, political economy, party systems and ideology, and modern Europe.