School & District Management Explainer

What’s Going On With Public School Enrollment? All the Big Questions, Answered

Talk of enrollment declines has become a fixture of school board meetings and media coverage
By Mark Lieberman — June 27, 2024 11 min read
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Ask any school district leader to share an issue that keeps them up at night, and you’ll reliably hear: What’s going to happen with enrollment?

The number of students attending public school in the U.S. increased every year between 1990 and 2019. Over that time, the K-12 system grew by 8.4 million students.

Those days are almost certainly over, experts warn.

Most districts nationwide receive an allocation of state funding based in part on the number of students they enroll. Fewer students mean fewer dollars to educate the students who remain, even as many of the costs of educating those students—from teacher salaries to utility bills—don’t change when the number of students drops.

In recent years, a convergence of trends in education and broader society have contributed to widespread enrollment losses in districts of all shapes, sizes, and locales. The topic of enrollment decline has become a fixture of school board meetings and media coverage.

But enrollment declines are far from uniform. Everything from the reasons they’re happening to their severity varies widely from place to place. The experience also isn’t universal—some districts have seen enrollment rise in recent years, defying national trends.

Still, researchers who study enrollment trends believe schools need to adjust to changing attitudes among families toward traditional schools and growing competition in the form of new education options—and ways for families to pay for them.

Teri Wilson, chief of staff for the Grand Prairie school district in Texas, has worked in public education for 40 years. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t a question of where I was going to school. I was going to go to school across the street,” she said. “Now there’s a whole lot of turbulence in the educational marketplace.”

Those who make school enrollment projections are coming to terms with heightened uncertainty. The demography projection firm Zonda, which contracts with school districts to offer enrollment projections, used to boast a track record of predicting districts’ enrollment three years in advance within 1 percent of the actual figure, said Bob Templeton, the company’s vice president of education.

In recent years, three-year predictions far more often come out 2 to 3 percent off the actual tallies.

“A 2 to 3 percent variance on a projection over five years, that can be a lot of students,” Templeton said.

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Here’s what district leaders, policymakers, and the broader public should know about what’s happening with enrollment, what remains unknown, and what districts can do about the knowns and unknowns.

How much has public school enrollment declined overall?

The answer depends, in part, on the point of comparison.

Roughly 49.6 million students in prekindergarten through 12th grade attended traditional public schools in 2022, the most recent year for which federal enrollment data are available.

That number represents a drop of nearly 1.2 million from 2019, when U.S. public school enrollment reached a peak of 50.8 million students.

Over the last decade for which data are available, public school enrollment dropped from 49.8 million in 2012 to 49.6 million in 2022. During that period, though, public school enrollment increased slightly each year from 2012 to 2019 before dipping dramatically in 2020 when the pandemic hit.

Overall enrollment stayed flat between 2020 and 2021, then rebounded slightly in 2022.

The National Center for Education Statistics projects another drop for 2023 enrollment, from 49.6 million in 2022 to just above 49 million.

Has the share of America’s school-age children attending public school declined?

Yes, though the magnitude of the drop depends on whether charter schools are factored in.

In fall 2011, traditional public school students, excluding charter school students, made up 87 percent of students enrolled in all schools.

A decade later, that figure was 83 percent, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal education data.

Charter schools, which are typically publicly funded but privately operated, have grown their share of the enrollment pie from 4 percent in 2011 to 7 percent in 2021, according to the Pew report.

That means roughly 91 percent of students attended traditional or charter public schools in 2011, and roughly 90 percent of students attended traditional or charter public schools in 2021.

Over the last decade, private school students consistently made up roughly 10 percent of the overall K-12 population. That marks a slight decline from the mid- to late-90s, when private schools enrolled 11.5 to 12 percent of K-12 students.

The figures also predate the dramatic expansion of private school choice programs in a number of Republican-led states that provide public funds to help families pay for private schools.

Have some grade levels seen bigger declines than others?

Yes. In fact, the number of public high school students nationwide increased modestly each year from 2012 (14.75 million) to 2022 (15.55 million). Each high school grade level saw small increases during that time period—even those that saw a decrease between 2019 and 2020.

The story is different among elementary and middle schoolers. The K-8 population saw a notable drop from 2019 (35.6 million) to 2020 (34.1 million). The number hovered around the 2020 figure in the subsequent two years as well.

A closer look at grade-level data reveals that a significant chunk of pandemic-era enrollment loss can be attributed to a drop in enrollment for kindergarten and pre-K. Slightly less than one-quarter of the total enrollment loss between 2019 and 2020 was in kindergarten alone; the drop in pre-K enrollment that year accounted for a slightly larger share of the total decline.

The disparity between growth among older and younger students is one of the major reasons school district leaders are eyeing the future with trepidation. As the current crop of younger students transitions into the older grades, the overall population of K-12 students appears set to decline significantly.

Have some states seen bigger declines than others?

Yes. In fact, slightly more than half of states had higher public school enrollment in 2022 than in 2012. Idaho, North Dakota, and Utah saw particularly notable growth over that time period, as did the District of Columbia.

By contrast, the remaining states have lost students over that time period. Illinois, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and West Virginia each had 11 percent fewer students in 2022 than in 2012, the largest drops in the country.

Which types of locations are seeing the biggest enrollment drops?

Some political narratives have suggested that families are flocking from big cities to the suburbs.

It’s true that the biggest cities have taken the biggest hit in terms of enrollment numbers. But that’s in large part because they had more students to begin with, said Jared Schachner, a public policy research scientist at the University of Southern California.

Schachner and colleagues are working on a project studying enrollment in big-city districts from 2010 to 2019. They’re aiming to put those numbers in proper context.

So far, his team has found that districts in the biggest cities tend to be experiencing enrollment drops that are similar in magnitude to districts in their surrounding areas. The negative perception of the biggest urban districts shedding students isn’t necessarily borne out by enrollment data, he said.

“I don’t think districts should be penalized just by virtue of being larger,” Schachner said.

The National Center for Education Statistics divides school districts into four classifications: urban, suburban, town, and rural. All four saw enrollment drops between 2019 and 2021, the two most recent years for which federal enrollment data are broken down by locale.

The steepest percentage drop was in cities. The shallowest drop was in rural areas.

What are the main reasons public school enrollment is dropping?

Roughly half the public school enrollment losses since the pandemic can be attributed to population changes, said Thomas Dee, an economist and professor of education at Stanford University.

Another roughly 20 percent of students left public school for private alternatives, and another 20 percent left for homeschooling, said Dee, who has spent the post-pandemic years researching the causes of K-12 enrollment loss in partnership with the Associated Press.

The latter figure troubles Dee, whose research team has struggled mightily to gather comprehensive data about homeschool enrollment. Many states don’t collect or report homeschool enrollment data at all. And there’s even less rigorous reporting about the quality or rigor of students’ homeschool experiences.

“Some of what exists as homeschooling may be functionally equivalent to truancy,” Dee said. “We just don’t know.”

Roughly 10 percent of pandemic-era enrollment drops don’t have a clear explanation, Dee said. Some students in that group may have entered homeschooling and aren’t being tracked by their respective states. Some may have skipped kindergarten, a legal option in more than half of states and a reasonable explanation for the sizable drop in kindergarten enrollment that happened at the start of the pandemic.

An unspecified number may have dropped out.

Why are many areas experiencing population decline?

Immigration slowed down considerably during the pandemic. During each year from 2019 to 2022, America welcomed fewer than half the people aged 18 to 65 that it welcomed each year from 2010 to 2018, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by University of California, Davis researchers.

Birth rates have also dropped considerably. In 1970, the nation’s “crude birth rate” was 23.7—the number of live births per 1,000 people. By 1990, that figure dropped to 16.7. It’s continued to drop since then—it dipped to roughly 11 in 2020 and 2021.

Families that do have kids aren’t necessarily staying in the same place. Counties with fewer than 30,000 people gained population after the pandemic began, while the number of people moving out of the largest counties increased, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the Grand Prairie school district outside Dallas, many parents who moved away said they wanted to be closer to other relatives or to their offices after the pandemic reminded them that time with family is precious and limited.

The 27,600-student district has lost 2,000 students since the pandemic began.

“We heard many parents say, ‘I love the school district, I hated leaving, but I needed to get closer to my parents, or my job,’” said Wilson, the district’s chief of staff.

What can school districts do to tackle the phenomenon of enrollment loss head-on?

To address declining enrollment, Wilson and her team developed an initiative called Smile and Dial.

Now, at the end of the first week of each school year, administrators including the superintendent have started to take 8 to 10 students off a list of those who enrolled the previous year but haven’t shown up yet for the new year. Then they pick up the phone.

“We call every student: Where are you in school this year? Do you have anything you need? Is there anything that’s been an obstacle with you enrolling with us?’” Wilson said.

The goal is for the district’s actual enrollment to exceed the number used by the district’s business officials as the basis for that year’s operating budget.

“We did it last year and we plan to do it again this year,” Wilson said.

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Wilson said she and her colleagues work hard to project messages to the community about the importance of public schools and the positive role they play for students. That’s in part a savvy marketing move: The number of charter schools in the district has grown from two in 2010 to 19 this year.

Of course, districts don’t have full control of the alternative education options that spring up around them. Nor do they have the power to stop lawmakers who in many states have created programs that offer parents taxpayer funds to spend on private education options.

So far, the majority of participants in those programs—in states like Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, and Florida—were already attending private school prior to receiving state funds in the form of vouchers or education savings accounts. But looking forward, as eligibility for private school choice programs expands to all students in some states, some public schools with major private-school competition nearby could see substantial drops in the number of enrolled students.

Policymakers have many options for facilitating public school offerings that help drive up enrollment, researchers said.

Dee is a big proponent of expanding access to state-funded and school district-operated pre-K programs, like the one currently expanding in California.

“I suspect there will be a stickiness in that type of enrollment,” Dee said. “If you can get families into a public pre-K program they’re likely to maintain continuity through to the public school student.”

Schachner thinks families may be enticed to stick with public schools if they see visible efforts underway to improve and modernize facilities. He’s also a proponent of policies that make it easier for families to have children, such as paid parental leave and improved access to affordable child care.

What’s going to happen next?

The National Center for Education Statistics projects nationwide public school enrollment a decade in advance.

Right now, researchers there predict enrollment will drop by 2.7 million between 2022 and 2031, landing at 46.9 million.

“Many school districts need to realize that it looks like the students they lost are not coming back anytime soon,” Dee said.

Liz Yap, Designer and Laura Baker, Creative Director contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as What’s Going On With Public School Enrollment? All the Big Questions, Answered

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