Three and a half years after the pandemic began, enrollment losses are still hampering public schools, which rely largely on student enrollment to shore up their budgets and pay their staff. Facts A May 2023 release by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that public school enrollment nationwide fell 3 percent — about 1.4 million students — in the first year of the pandemic and in has remained at that lower level for the 2021-2022 school year. While national figures for the 2022-2023 school year are not yet available, state-level data from California, Illinois, New Yorkand others show that roles in public schools are still trending downward.
At this point, there is every indication that the initial shocks in public school enrollment caused by the pandemic will not return anytime soon. Educators must be prepared for a new normal in which school choice programs are widespread, families increasingly choose options outside traditional public schools, and public school spending must be curtailed to serve smaller student populations.
Several factors explain why public school student populations are shrinking. Parents have been dissatisfied with extended periods of online learning and enforced face masks in their schools during the pandemic, and the negative impact on students of keeping schools closed has been well documented. A analysis of the Associated Press found that from 2019 to 2022, “the average student lost more than half a school year in math and nearly a quarter of a school year in reading.” Many of the deep blue neighborhoods that kept schools closed the longest paid the greatest price for that decision, both in terms of enrollment losses and academic decline.
Meanwhile, the private education market appears to be booming. According to a study published in February 2022 by the Urban Institute, the pandemic exodus of students from public schools coincided with a continued increase in private education and homeschooling. The 33 states (plus DC) with available data saw private school enrollment increases of more than 4 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2021 — which isn’t surprising, given that private schools have returned to personal learning much faster than public schools did.
The private education market is also moving away from traditional classrooms. The same Urban Institute study found that the 21 states (plus DC) with available data saw a more than 30 percent increase in homeschooling in the same time frame. “Micro schools” – small private schools that operate in non-traditional settings such as libraries and churches – have also grown substantially. Mike McShane of the school choice group EdChoice told The Wall Street Journal last month that microschools now likely serve between one and two million students.
If public school enrollment doesn’t rebound after the pandemic subsides, it’s a sign that families are largely sticking with this new learning environment. This momentum is likely to continue thanks to the wave of school choice programs adopted or expanded in the US 2021, 2022And 2023 legislative sessions of states.
There is another crucial component behind the decline in public school enrollment that should not be overlooked. NCES projections of stagnant and declining school-age populations in many of the nation’s major coastal states predate both the pandemic and the recent wave of school choice. These two factors appear to have accelerated the population changes that many school systems were soon to experience anyway.
Unfortunately, public school systems have a poor track record when it comes to reining in spending and staffing when student populations decline. States that already had that declining enrollment before the pandemic — places like California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts — have remained steady hire more staff instead of making cuts and doing so expenditure at record high rates per student.
Even now, public schools are refusing to absorb the financial impact of their student losses during the pandemic. Instead of using strong state tax revenues and billions of federal stimulus dollars to carefully reduce budgets, some of the biggest enrollment losers, such as New York City Public Schools And Los Angeles Unified School Districthave used their money to avoid cuts altogether.
Those extra federal funds will soon dry up, and public schools will soon have to face reality. The pandemic, school choice and long-term population shifts will finally force them to exercise some budgetary restraint.