SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Home schooling nearly doubled in New Mexico last year as thousands of parents opted out of virtual learning programs offered in public schools.
The unprecedented defection from the public school system is putting a strain on school budgets, which are rooted in student enrollment.
Parents with the time and patience to school at home said they love the flexibility of home school and have learned how to give their children a more tailored education.
“We had no interest in doing virtual learning through a public or charter school,” said Jennifer Fischer, 43, who moved with her partner and two sons from Los Angeles to Albuquerque during the pandemic in August.
Raised by school teachers and experienced in teaching media classes, the filmmaker couple were unintimidated by prospect of teaching their fourth-grade and fifth-grade boys.
For others, there was a learning curve.
“It was a little bit tough at first just trying to get the schedule and the routine down,” said Albuquerque homemaker Cynthia Sanchez, who home-schooled her four children, who range in age from kindergarten to seventh grade.
Both parents joined the Facebook group Homeschool Homies last summer to see what other home-school families were doing. They weren’t alone.
“I went from getting, you know, maybe 10 requests a week to getting maybe 25 to 30 requests a day,” said Sarah Candelaria, 35, who administered Homeschool Homies and a few other homeschool-focused groups.
She fielded some of the same questions over and over again: “What curriculum should we use? Do we have to register with the state?”
The number of children registered with the state as home schoolers nearly doubled from around 8,800 before the pandemic to around 15,400 this past school year, according to Public Education Department data. K-12 enrollment was already shrinking by around 1.1% each year following a decade of decreased births and more childbearing-aged people moving out of the state than moving to it.
The home-schooling data validates a Census survey that found home schooling doubled in New Mexico and across the U.S.
Because federal and state education funding is pegged to student enrollment, a retreat from public school systems will hit budgets. In Albuquerque Public Schools, officials anticipate a loss of as much as $53 million because of the decline in enrollment.
Home schooling increased in all but the tiniest New Mexico school districts, according to additional home-schooling data obtained by The Associated Press in a public records request.
Statewide, the increase in home schoolers accounts for more than half of the 4% decline in public school enrollment in New Mexico last year, an AP analysis shows. Thousands of students left the system by transferring to a private school. An unknown number moved out of state.
Federal pandemic aid is boosting school budgets for the next two years. But long term, enrollment is declining.
Candelaria, the Facebook group administrator, said lots of parents will stick with home schooling even as the pandemic wanes.
Sanchez is one of them. She said her children have been learning more at home than at public school.
“They didn’t have the time catered to them to make sure they understood the material before moving ahead,” Sanchez said. “I had the time available to give to the kids.”
Her two daughters asked to go back to school this year so that they could be around friends. She compromised with them by allowing them to play group sports.
Fischer, the filmmaker, said her family is ready to send the kids back to public school this year “assuming there are not variants or a spike in numbers.”
But she hopes school districts draw on the lessons of the pandemic to offer more tailored learning to students, and more programs where students attend three days per week and home school the other two days, Fischer said.
“We can expand and say even a public system needs to be more customizable and meet the needs of different learners,” she said.
Cedar Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.