School & District Management What the Research Says

Public School Enrollment Continues to Stagnate

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 16, 2022 3 min read
Scarce classroom of students taking exams at their desks with empty desks in the foreground.
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More than two years into the pandemic, 1.3 million students are still missing from public school rolls, with financial implications looming for districts eyeing the end of extra federal and state pandemic aid.

The federal Education Department’s preliminary count finds 49.5 million students were enrolled in public schools last fall. That’s ticked up slightly from 49.4 million in 2020, when many schools were still closed to in-person instruction. But it’s still well below the 50.8 million students who were in public pre-K-12 before the pandemic began.

Earlier in the pandemic, schools saw the largest declines in the earliest grades, particularly for low-income and Black students. Incoming preschool and kindergarten classes did rebound, with 15 percent more pre-kindergartners and 5 percent more kindergartners enrolled last fall than in 2020. But in many states that boost was not enough to make up for the massive decline the prior year, when 20 states lost 10 percent or more of their kindergartners and at least four states lost more than 1 in 3 pre-K students, compared to fall 2019.

Two of the most populous states in the country had the largest ongoing enrollment declines: California, down 1.7 percent, and New York, down more than 2.2 percent since 2020. The declines have spurred a flurry of outreach efforts in both states, such as a 600-person door-to-door campaign in the Los Angeles Unified school district.

Boston University and University of Michigan researchers have found that the ongoing disruptions and changing restrictions “may have substantially altered parents’ perceptions of the quality of schooling their children might experience, as well as their perceptions of the physical risk of in-person schooling.”

But families have not responded equally. The researchers, led by Tareena Musaddiq, a public policy researcher at the University of Michigan, found low-income and Black families became less likely to have their young children start school during 2020’s remote learning, but white and wealthier families were more likely to pull even their older children from public school systems in favor of home-schooling, private schools, or other options. As of last year, white students’ enrollment continued to decline across grades.

Sandra Kim, spokesman for the Home School Legal Defense Association, said about 9 million families home-school today, accounting for 11 percent of all families with school-age children. That’s up from only 3 percent in 2019.

“I think one of the questions that we are all still coming to is, what does this new normal of mid- to post-pandemic look like?” said Ross Santy, the associate commissioner for administrative data for the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the new enrollment data. “Obviously fall of 2020 was a unique time when vaccines were not out yet, the pandemic was at its most impactful, and we saw a large, significant decline that we hadn’t seen in recent years in public school enrollment.”

While virtually all schools are back to full in-person instruction, Santy said, it could be another few years before education leaders will be able to confirm a new enrollment baseline.

“There are still disruptions; there are still things that are affecting the delivery of education and therefore people’s comfort level with public education,” Santy said.

The Common Core of Data includes a snapshot of reported enrollment for all district and charter public schools that is taken each October. The current data include 49 states, the District of Columbia, Bureau of Indian Education schools, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Washington state did not provide data by the submission deadline. Enrollment data are expected to be finalized by the end of 2022.

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