How pandemic-related disturbances drove a 9% decline in public school enrollment

Recent research suggests increased parent involvement and school choice are the leading causes for students opting out of public schools.

Recent trends indicate there’s been a significant shift in enrollment numbers among public schools since the pandemic.

Unfortunately for many districts, declining enrollment is not something they can afford, and it encapsulates more than simply a decrease in student numbers.

Enrollment levels determine the amount of funding a district receives from the state. On top of that, several districts are relying on their COVID relief funds to keep their heads above water. However, experts have warned District Administration of three major economic shocks in the coming years. Yet, enrollment is the “dark horse” districts aren’t paying a lot of attention to.

According to research released this week by Tyton Partners, a consulting firm whose recent research focuses on pandemic-related shifts in education, overall public school enrollment dropped nearly 10% between spring 2021 and spring 2022. The report is based on data gathered from two surveys of more than 6,000 K-12 parents in May 2022.

Before the pandemic, public school enrollment was at 47.1 million, the research indicates. As of spring 2022, it is estimated to have dropped to 40.2 million.

The researchers note that the surveys were conducted after vaccines were available and mask mandates were scrapped. Public schools were welcoming their students back with open arms, but not everyone returned. “This post-pandemic decline in K-12 public school enrollment suggests that this is no temporary anomaly but may instead reflect a tipping point,” the report reads.

Where are the students?

Researchers point to lingering enrollment challenges that existed even before the pandemic, which they call the “Three Ds.”

  • Dropouts, a trend they suggest has increased in popularity due to the pandemic.
  • Downward demographic pressures: More students are aging out of public school than entering.
  • Deferments, which occur as families hold their children back and which researchers argue have increased since the pandemic.

These factors contribute to an estimated decline in 300,000 students from 2021-22, but that doesn’t account for the overall 10% drop in enrollment. So, what happened to the majority of students?

“The implication is that most students exited their district public schools to enroll in charter schools and private schools or pursue homeschooling as a result of their experiences during the pandemic,” the report writes.

Approximately 3.7 million students made a change to their education experience, the analysis suggests. Private schools saw the largest enrollment increase, followed by homeschooling and charter schools.

Factors driving school choice

Although the quality of education may not have been exceptional before the pandemic, parents became increasingly involved in their child’s education as many districts adopted remote instruction.

For parents who chose to remove their child from public school, their top concerns were the quality of their child’s education and safety. They reported seeing a disruption in their child’s learning as a result of the pandemic. When asked about specific safety concerns, most parents cited bullying and gun violence more often than COVID-19 health protocols.

Parents were also asked about their preferences on actions to address learning loss. More than 50% of respondents said they prefer the following learning environments:

  • Learning groups consisting of fewer than 10 students
  • Offering various learning sites outside of the classroom
  • Flexible schedules that are driven by the student’s needs
Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttp://districtadministration.com
Micah Ward is a District Administration staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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