Equity & Diversity From Our Research Center

Suburban Schools Saw Huge Drops in White Enrollment During the Pandemic

By Benjamin Herold & Xinchun Chen — August 29, 2022 5 min read
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America’s suburban public schools lost more than 5 percent of their white students during the first year of the pandemic, a new analysis from the EdWeek Research Center found. That decline was more than twice as steep as the enrollment drops among suburban Black, Hispanic, and Asian students.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” Marguerite Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and an expert on K-12 enrollment, said of the overall declines. “Half a percent a year is bleeding students.”

All told, America’s public school system lost more than 1.3 million students, or about 3 percent of its total enrollment, during the 2020-21 school year. That represented the largest single-year drop since WWII. The declines were steepest in Pre-K and kindergarten. Comprehensive data on 2021-22 enrollment are not yet available.

The EdWeek Research Center examined enrollment trends in more than 27,000 schools spread across the nation’s 25 largest metropolitan areas. The sample is derived from an earlier analysis of 2006-07 enrollment data by Erica Frankenberg, a Penn State professor who wrote the groundbreaking book The Resegregation of Suburban Schools, which the EdWeek Research Center has since updated; schools that have closed or opened since the original analysis are not included.

The EdWeek Research Center examination found that city schools lost students from most racial groups at a higher rate than their suburban counterparts.

During the first year of the pandemic, those suburban schools lost roughly 283,000 white students, compared with roughly 50,000 Hispanic, 34,000 Black, and 10,000 Asian students. Because of the more dramatic declines in white enrollment, the country’s fast-changing suburban schools are now 46 percent white overall, down two points from just a few years ago and down 14 points from 2006-07, the analysis found.

“We’ve been projecting these demographic changes and the browning of America for decades,” said Sonya Douglass, a professor of Education Leadership at Teachers College Columbia University, where she is also the founding director of the Black Education Research Collective. “Now it’s here.”

In some individual districts, the numbers are striking. The Fairfax County, Va., public schools, for example, lost more than 5,000 of its roughly 71,000 white students between 2019-20 and 2020-21. That represented a 7 percent drop in white enrollment, compared with a 5 percent drop overall.

The roughly 42,000-student public school system in Henry County, Ga., meanwhile, experienced a modest decline of just 1 percent of its overall enrollment during the first year of the pandemic. But that top-line figure masked a whopping 11 percent decline in white students that was nearly made up for by 2 to 3 percent gains among Black, Hispanic, and multiracial students.

Neither district responded to questions from Education Week.

A big enrollment decline creates a ‘shock to the system’

School districts that returned to in-person learning more quickly and served counties where people were least likely to report consistent mask usage saw the strongest rebounds in overall enrollment, according to the Return to Learn Tracker, a project of the American Enterprise Institute.

If that is in fact what’s driving the racial differences in enrollment declines during the pandemic, it’s a perfect example of the concept of “interest convergence” that is central to critical race theory, said Douglass of Teachers College. The idea essentially holds that efforts to advance the interests of families of color will only last as long as white families see a corresponding benefit for themselves. But when disagreements arise over policies such as mask mandates, vaccination requirements, or in-person vs. remote learning, members of the dominant group are often still inclined to shape the rules according to their preferences—or to exit the system and take their resources elsewhere.

When that results in big enrollment declines, it’s a “shock to the system” for districts that are much more comfortable growing than shrinking, said Roza of the Edunomics Lab. Layoffs, staff reassignments, school closures, and shortened school weeks are just some of the difficult policy decisions that can follow. But because those steps are often painful and likely to meet resistance, district leaders often drag their feet, tinkering with smaller changes while burning through cash reserves.

“We call it the ‘first-step freeze.’ It’s like a deer in the headlights,” Roza said. “We’re going to need districts to be more nimble financially.”

There does appear to have been an enrollment rebound in 2021-22. Still, the future is murky. The National Center for Education Statistics, for example, anticipates slow K-12 enrollment gains through the end of the decade, projections that vary tremendously from state to state and reflect underlying dynamics such as reduced immigration and slowing birth rates that predate the pandemic.

Steps district leaders should take to weather enrollment drops

So what should suburban school district leaders do?

It’s important to be clear-eyed about what’s happening and to lay out the bigger picture for school board members, district staff, and community members, Roza said. From there, she recommends district leaders take some important steps, such as modeling a variety of scenarios for consideration, introducing processes for mid-year adjustments in how resources are allocated, and being willing to make hard staffing decisions now to avoid even harder decisions later.

But while many suburban school systems have historically put an outsized focus on trying to attract, retain, and lure back middle-class white families due to the perception that their involvement and support is necessary for a strong public education system, that ship may have sailed.

“We haven’t seen it work in a lot of places,” Roza said. “I would say that at a certain point, rather than trying to recruit families back, the better focus for the long haul is to do a really good job serving the kids you have.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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