California Public School Enrollment: Lowest in Decades

Josslyn Brandon, staff writer

This year marks the fifth year in a row that public school enrollment has dropped in California. This year, the numbers have dropped below six million which hasn’t happened since the start of the century. The COVID pandemic’s disruptions and restrictions have schools struggling with a significant drop in enrollment. 

California’s public school enrolment was 5,892,204 at the start of the fall semester in 2021. According to state data, the numbers are down 1.8 percent (a more than 1110,000 student drop.) This is the first time in almost two decades that the number of students enrolled has fallen below six million. A third of the decline is due to large districts. 

Even though the state’s enrollment has been on a downward slide since the year 2014-to 2015, the state education officials put the pandemic largely at fault for the plummet of the prior two years. This school year’s drop is large at 1.8 percent, but not nearly as steep as the 2020 to 2021 school year with a 2.6 percent decline, the largest in twenty years at 160,000 students. Heather J. Hough, executive director of the Policy Analysis for California Education says that there is not enough data to figure out where all of the kids went. 

According to Julien Lafortune, a research scholar at the Public Policy Institute of California, there was some expectation that enrollment would continue to decline as the state faces diminishing residential population and birth rates, as well as out-of-state migration.

There are several other factors that play into the slip in K-12 enrollment in the state of California as Lafortune stated. Some children went to private schools, which reported a 1.7 percent increase in enrollment. Homeschooling also increased as more families decided it best to keep their children away from the pandemic. Another explanation could be that more families have left California than predicted, owing to rising housing costs or the flexibility of remote work, among other things.

Nonetheless, these factors do not account for the large drops, and education experts are concerned that some children may have continued to stay out of school. The largest declines are in the grade levels first, fourth, seventh, and ninth. However, kindergarten enrolment increased, but not nearly enough to make up for the missing numbers. It is possible that many parents put a hold on enrolling their children in Kindergarten because of the pandemic, which may be the cause of so many kindergarten students. This also translates to a significant decrease in first graders this year.

As part of their effort to deal with the effects of falling enrollment, districts are already considering measures such as closing schools. L.A. Unified saw a drop of more than 27,000 children in the fall of 2021, an annual decline of close to 6 percent, a far greater slide than in any recent year.

It is not only California that is facing such decline, nor is it limited to public schools. There has been a drop in charter schools this fall as well. Many other states are experiencing the consequences of the pandemic, but closing school is hard for everyone regardless.