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School Choice & Charters

More Young Kids Opted for Private School After COVID Hit

By Mark Lieberman — December 06, 2023 3 min read
A teacher with group of students standing in private school campus courtyard and talking
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Enrollment in the nation’s private schools increased slightly during the early years of the pandemic, while public school enrollment dipped during the same period, newly released federal data show.

Slightly more than 4.73 million K-12 students were enrolled in private schools during the 2021-22 school year. That year was the second full one after the pandemic hit, and the first year when the vast majority of students attended school in person.

That number represents a slight bump from the 4.65 million students who attended private school in the 2019-20 school year, which was interrupted by the onset of the pandemic.

During the same period, the number of students attending public school dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million, federal data show.

Private school students remain a distinct minority among American children—only 10 percent of the overall K-12 population. But the increase shown in the latest federal statistics suggests the widespread chaos of the pandemic’s early days led some students to leave public schools for alternative options, or to opt for private school at the start of their K-12 journey.

It also sheds some more light on the question of where some—but not all—of the students who left public schools at the height of the pandemic ended up.

The increase in private school enrollment was especially pronounced in the early grades—where public school enrollment drops have been steepest. The number of students attending private elementary school—kindergarten through 5th grade—jumped from 2.1 million in 2019 to 2.2 million in 2021. The number of private-school kindergarteners and 1st graders alone grew by just shy of 50,000.

The latest enrollment numbers come from the Private School Universe Survey, conducted every other year by the federal National Center for Education Statistics, and published Dec. 6.

Those data mirror the findings of a state-level enrollment data analysis published in February by the Associated Press in collaboration with education researcher Thomas Dee that found that more than 200,000 students in 21 states were simply missing from the nation’s public schools.

It’s also worth noting that the private school numbers cover the period shortly before a recent burst of state laws that provide parents with public dollars they can spend on tuition and other expenses for private education. Enrollment statistics in the coming years will paint a fuller picture of how much those policies will impact private school enrollment.

What’s next for public schools? Enrollment challenges galore

Some students left public schools for private alternatives. But not only private schools were the beneficiaries of that shift. Using data from 32 states, the Washington Post estimated earlier this year that between 1.9 million and 2.7 million students now are homeschooled, up from 1.5 million students in 2019.

Other students still remain unaccounted for in publicly available data. Some may have dropped out of school altogether. Some may have skipped kindergarten and headed straight into 1st grade.

These emerging trends, coupled with population decline among younger generations, mean many public schools can expect to see enrollment drops in the coming years, according to Dee, an economist and professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

“The kids aren’t coming back,” he said. Public schools “need to reckon with strategies to manage the new normal they’re facing.”

Enrollment declines can spell trouble for district budgets. Most states direct per-pupil aid to schools based on the number of enrolled students—even though many costs of running a school, from utilities to teacher salaries, are fixed regardless of the number of students in the building.

Dee believes states and districts should focus their efforts on providing the best possible services to the youngest children, even if the number of children drops over time. California’s recent investments in publicly funded prekindergarten is a prime example, he said.

“They should really focus on that both as a way to support younger kids who were most disrupted by the pandemic, and bolster enrollment in districts that have really lost a lot of kids,” Dee said.

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