Elizabeth Walsh, a mother of three elementary school-aged children in Washington, D.C., is determined not to become one of those wealthy white families that abandons urban public schools when times get tough, as has been the case since the coronavirus shut down schools for 50 million children more than a year ago.
However, with the vast majority of students still learning virtually in cities across the country – and up to 90% in the nation’s capital – she is clinging to life by a thread. “I don’t want to generalize, but where we live so many people already have it in their head, ‘I’m just using the public school system until fifth grade or fourth grade and then I’m applying my kid out anyway,'” Walsh says about the majority white neighborhood nestled in the northwestern part of the city, where median home prices often exceed $2 million. “I believe in the public school system. I want my kids to go until twelfth grade.”
“I think they’re going to get into a better college coming from DCPS than Sidwell Friends,” she says, referencing one of the dozens of elite Washington-area private schools, in which she estimates at least 50% of the families in and around her neighborhood have already secured enrollment for their children.’ “We have the money to go to private school, but I’m not changing course,” she says, unless, that is, her kids don’t go back in person this fall.
Walsh is trying to hold out, but anecdotal evidence from cities across the country suggests that wealthy parents are withdrawing their children from public schools in greater numbers. While demographic information is lacking, enrollment in urban public schools has dropped by about 4% since schools closed a year ago – in some cities, enrollment has dropped by more than 30% in prekindergarten and early elementary school grades. And, as white parents increasingly insist on in-person school, forcing them to enroll in private options or relocate to the suburbs, while many parents of color are hesitant to send their children back in person, it exacerbates the inequities that already plague urban public schools systems.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser and DC Public Schools chancellor Lewis Ferebee, like many other mayors and superintendents of large city school districts, have promised that schools will be open in-person five days a week next fall for families who want the option. However, as of March, 87 percent of fourth-grade students and 93 percent of eighth-grade students in Washington were learning entirely remotely. And, for some parents who have already left the public school system, the fall may be too late.
Walsh’s three children attend their neighborhood public school four days a week for two and a half hours of in-person instruction. The in-person offering kicked off in mid-April.
“What the public schools have done to us has shown us that they are not necessarily going to be there for us,” she says. “And what the private schools have shown people is like, ‘No, no. You pay us a lot of money and we are going to be here for you. We are not going to leave you high and dry.'”
That’s why Walsh has a contingency plan in place in case her children’s school doesn’t fully reopen next school year: moving to a house she and her husband own on Cape Cod.
“If something goes wrong, we’ll go up there next year and I’ll enroll my kids in Massachusetts, where they can go to school in person,” she says. “But that’s exactly what I don’t want to do.”
With the latest federal data showing that less than 30 percent of elementary and middle school students in cities are receiving in-person instruction, full time, five days a week, Walsh is on the verge of joining a chorus of parents pulling the plug on their urban school systems – a phenomenon that threatens to financially cripple districts where enrollment is already down due to the pandemic and famine.