Enrollment in U.S. public schools saw a one-year drop of 1.4 million students in the fall of 2020, hitting a 10-year low of 49.4 million students.
The sudden decline followed 3 percent growth over the preceding decade.
Although enrollment rebounded slightly in 2021, it remains at its lowest level since 2010, prompting some districts to consider school closures and other cost-saving measures.
New York City’s public school enrollment fell to 903,000 in 2022, according to the website Gothamist; that’s about a 10 percent decline over three years.
“We have a hemorrhaging of families that are leaving the city, leaving the school system,” New York Mayor Eric Adams said during an announcement in June 2022, expressing concern the loss of students would trigger the loss of federal funding to the city’s public schools.
Enrollment in the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest, has fallen to about 430,000 over the past 20 years from 737,000, and officials have said that they expect another 28 percent decrease by 2030.
“We will have to navigate through difficult but important conversations and decisions in order not only to plan for the future but also to ensure that, during a very unstable and unsustainable set of practices and processes, we come out the other end on solid footing without compromising the viability of our school district,” LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the LAUSD Board of Education in May 2022, according to EdSource.
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen by 82,000 over nine years to about 302,000 students. The city’s Board of Education voted to close 50 schools in 2013.
State law now prohibits further closures or consolidations until 2025. Twelve percent of Chicago’s public schools enroll fewer than 200 students.
Indianapolis Public Schools have just more than 28,000 students, with the capacity to handle roughly 46,000, leaving 60 percent of classroom space unused.
“I think people should know that everything is on the table,” Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Aleesia Johnson to the nonprofit media outlet WFYI in March 2022.
“But that doesn’t mean only closure is on the table. That means we could consider closures. We could consider consolidations; we could consider new buildings—which I think there’s certainly evidence that we need some new buildings; we could consider renovating.”
In November 2022, the Indianapolis Public Schools Board of Education approved a reorganization plan that included closing six school buildings and changing the grade configuration of others.
Losses May Be Closer to 2 Million
The shift away from public schools may be even larger than total enrollment numbers show. Those figures include new enrollees, obscuring the actual number of students leaving public schools.
A 2022 report by Education Next indicates that between 2020 and 2022, enrollment in non-charter public schools declined to 76.5 percent of total school enrollment from 81 percent, while enrollment in public charter schools increased to 7.2 percent from 5 percent, private school enrollment rose to 9.7 percent from 8 percent, and homeschooling increased to 6.6 percent from 6 percent.
That indicates that nearly 2 million students left traditional public schools for other educational options.
A study by the CATO Institute shows similar findings, with more private schools gaining enrollment in 2020–21.
Fewer Students, Less Money
Public schools are generally funded on a per-student basis, making declining enrollment a significant financial challenge.
School districts have grappled with the problem in various ways.
Despite declining enrollment, New York City school officials have pledged not to reduce spending this year.
“As we recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, we will ensure every student has the resources they need to thrive,” David Banks, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, said in a statement.
“This investment will boost our schools that face continued enrollment challenges caused by the pandemic.”
Denver Public Schools anticipates a funding shortfall of about $9 million by the end of the school year that will be covered with reserve funds, according to the district’s financial report.
One factor was lower-than-expected enrollment. School officials project an additional 3.6 percent decrease in enrollment over the next four years.
Minneapolis Public Schools have the capacity to serve 40,000 students but have enrolled just 28,000. Projections show that the district will run out of money by 2025 without some intervention, and school closures are considered likely, according to StarTribune.
A year ago, California’s Oakland Unified School District closed seven schools because of a looming $50 million budget deficit and a decline in student enrollment.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many states adopted hold-harmless policies that prevented schools from losing funding because of lower enrollment.
Public schools also received $190 billion in federal funding over the past two years through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Plan, created under the federal CARES Act in 2020 and added to the American Rescue Plan in 2021.
When those provisions run out, the reality of declining enrollment may have an even greater financial impact.