Student Enrollment at Many Schools Continues to Decline

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By Chad Aldeman
April 29, 2024

Public school enrollment soared steadily during the initial two decades of the 2000s.

The National Center for Education Statistics previously forecasted continuous growth in public school enrollments, but recent projections are less optimistic due to dropping immigration and birth rates. 

Following the onset of COVID-19, enrollments sharply declined, leading the center to revise its forecast. It now anticipates a short-lived recovery followed by a long-term decrease.

The immediate rebound anticipated by the center did not materialize. Current projections suggest significantly fewer enrollments for the remainder of the decade.

As per the center’s latest data, public schools accommodated 1.2 million fewer students in 2022-23 compared to the pre-COVID year. 

The declines were widespread, affecting 37 states and roughly two-thirds of school districts. California experienced the largest drop in numeric terms with 420,000 fewer public school students (a 6.7% decline), while Oregon saw the greatest percentage decline (9.4%). 

What led to these patterns? According to Stanford University researcher Thomas Dee’s findings, the decline in COVID-era enrollments resulted from various factors such as increased homeschooling, a shift to private schools, lower school-age population, and missing students in the data. 

However, these are past occurrences. A separate division within the center is responsible for future projections, and the outlook is grim: It predicts that public schools, including public charter schools, will face a further loss of 2.4 million students (4.9%) by 2031.

These projections are informed by historical enrollment trends and demographic assumptions, with the possibility of being overly pessimistic, especially given recent uncertainties. For instance, while homeschooling surged at the outset of COVID, it has since started to subside in most regions. Similarly, immigration witnessed a sharp decline in 2020 but has since recovered. 

However, birth rates significantly impact student enrollment trends and have been on a long-term decline. Despite fluctuations during COVID, a report by Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine for Brookings indicates a continued downward trajectory. They highlight data suggesting nearly 600,000 fewer births in 2019 compared to 2007, translating to a reduction in kindergartners entering schools by 600,000.  

Enrollment shifts are not uniform across the U.S. Thirteen states, including Florida, North Dakota, and Idaho, are expected to gain students by the end of the decade. However, the majority of states should brace for reduced enrollments. Seven states—Hawaii, California, New Mexico, New York, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Oregon—are projected to undergo double-digit declines in addition to any existing losses. California alone is poised to lose nearly 1 million public school students by 2031.

View interactive map at:

In general, districts’ funding is dependent on student numbers, implying that shrinking communities should anticipate reduced school budgets in the future. While it’s not a direct correlation, the majority of districts can rely on local funds, which are typically independent of enrollment figures, unlike state funds which are tied to it. This safeguards about 45% of school district revenues. Similarly, states offer various hold-harmless provisions that provide temporary financial protection for districts experiencing enrollment declines.  

However, these districts will eventually have to adjust to lower revenues. This transition is challenging, especially when factoring in rising pension costs and fixed expenses like bond or facilities payments. 

The one-time federal relief funds temporarily assisted districts operating beyond their financial means and permitted schools across the nation to decrease student:teacher ratios. Nonetheless, when these funds exhaust later this year, districts will need to explore options to downsize their budgets, whether via school closures due to low enrollment, staff layoffs to return to pre-pandemic levels, or scaling back on emerging programs showing promising results. 

In essence, districts witnessing the most drastic enrollment reductions won’t evade the financial pressures associated with serving fewer students. The majority of areas in the country are anticipating further enrollment declines, necessitating proactive measures to navigate these challenges. 

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