Public school enrollment rebounded slightly between the fall of 2021 and 2022, but it remained 1.2 million students below pre-pandemic levels, the latest federal data show.
The overall numbers conceal two conflicting trends: While enrollment increased more significantly for older students, it continued to fall below pre-COVID levels in younger grades. Those dynamics could further complicate district leaders’ efforts to plan in areas like finances, facilities, programs, and staffing.
The new data comes as districts in all parts of the country weigh school closures to deal with financial shortfalls and declining student populations.
Prekindergarten through 12th grade public school enrollment reached 49.6 million at the start of the 2022-23 school year, an increase of 1 percent from 2021-22 levels and a drop of 2 percent from 2019-2020, according to an analysis released Monday by the National Center for Education Statistics, a wing of the U.S. Department of Education.
Among pre-K through 8th grade students, enrollment dropped 4 percent between 2019 and 2022. Among 9th through 12th grade students, enrollment increased by about 2 percent during the same time period, the data show.
A complicated forecast for school districts
“It creates some potential complicating factors for school districts,” said Paul Bruno, an assistant professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
He stressed that the data explains the “what” but not the “why” of enrollment levels, and that it’s difficult to predict longer-term trends.
“As long as you don’t have to make staffing cuts, you can sort of manage a situation where enrollment is falling more in some grades than in others,” he said. But when declines in funding necessitate layoffs, “your staff are not really interchangeable between schools, and that’s politically difficult.”
Public discussions may center on overall numbers of teaching positions, but districts may face increased need for teachers with specific expertise, like high school computer science teachers, and declining need for other kinds of staff, like elementary school teachers.
After pandemic-era narratives about school staffing shortages, parents and public officials may be caught off guard when school districts shift to discussing personnel cuts and campus closures, Bruno said.
“I think that’s going to be whiplash for some communities and some policymakers,” he said.
Even as enrollment fell in recent years, districts have generally been able to maintain higher staffing levels as states adopted “hold harmless” policies, keeping per-pupil funding the same despite changing student numbers. They’ve also used federal COVID-19 relief aid to build and sustain programs, pointing to urgent academic-recovery needs.
But as the spending deadline for that aid approaches in the fall and as states discontinue lenient policies, district leaders may face some tough choices, Bruno said.
Factors behind enrollment declines
Several factors drive longer-term enrollment declines. Pandemic disruptions caused some families to leave their school systems, birth rates are declining, and the growing of states choice programs offer families public funds for private school tuition and other educational materials. And some enrollment loss cannot be easily explained, experts have said.
“This [new data] points to a continuously changing school enrollment landscape,” NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement.
The release of the agency’s Private School Universe Survey and National Household Education Survey later this year may help paint a fuller picture, she said.
Changes vary by region
Enrollment changes vary by state, the new data show.
Overall levels remained relatively stable between 2021-22 and 2022-23, with most states experiencing a change of less than 1 percent in either direction.
A comparison of 2019-20 and 2022-23 data paints a more dramatic picture. Five states—California, Hawaii, Mississippi, New York, and Oregon—saw student counts decline at least 5 percent in that period. In Puerto Rico, where schools have been hit hard by natural disasters and faced funding challenges, enrollment dropped by 14.3 percent during that time.
Two states—Idaho and North Dakota—saw enrollment growth around 2 percent during the same time period.