How the state, districts can prepare for K-12 enrollment declines

With enrollment declines taking place in almost three-quarters of California school districts in the last five years and the trend expected to continue in the next decade, a report and corresponding brief published by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) in December explore factors around, and future projections related to, declining enrollment in K-12.

By 2032, the California Department of Finance is predicting enrollment will dip below 5.2 million public school students while the federal government is projecting the state’s enrollment will slip to 5 million. In 2022–23, total K-12 enrollment was 5.85 million, according to data from the California Department of Education. Enrollment peaked at more than 6.3 million students in 2004.

Future declines would impact district finances, operations, staffing and facilities.

Key findings that PPIC researchers note in the resources include:

  • Declines in enrollment are anticipated in almost all regions of the state in the coming decade.
  • Counties with higher numbers of English learner (EL), Asian, Black and Latino students are expecting larger declines in enrollment.
  • Though most districts that lose students don’t close schools, those that do typically close campuses that serve higher rates of low-income and EL students and have lower test scores.
  • Declining birth rates and net migration out of California are some factors exacerbating the situation.

All but two regions, the Sierra and Northern Central Valley, will likely face enrollment declines by 2022–23 with Greater Los Angeles, San Diego/Imperial and the Bay Area regions expected to see the most significant drops.

“While projections come with some uncertainty, the state knows how many TK–12 students may enter the system in the next five years from birth records alone, meaning that there is less scope for enrollment trends to change considerably without large shifts in people migrating into the state,” the report clarifies, though it has understated declines in demographic projections in the past. In addition to uncertainties around migration patterns, private school enrollment could continue to evolve in the post-pandemic environment and impact public schools.

Preparing for the future

The report warns that enrollment declines could stir up competitive pressures between neighboring districts as they seek to attract students.

“On the one hand, increased pressure to attract students and families by providing higher-quality services and educational options provides a win-win for districts and their families — and has been a strategy touted by the California Department of Education in their guidance to districts around declining enrollment,” according to the report. “On the other hand, declines due to demographic changes mean that some districts will ‘lose twice’ — once from fewer children living in their boundaries and again from some of these students attending school elsewhere.”

There are some potentially positive outcomes from declining enrollment, such as an easing of capacity constraints on school facilities allowing space for offerings like transitional kindergarten, community schools and after-school programs. More per-pupil funding is also possible.

“From the state perspective, the minimum funding guaranteed to public schools by Proposition 98 (1988) may bring a silver lining: higher per-pupil funding for fewer students. But districts will face difficult downsizing decisions. Accelerating declines could also bring greater pressure to close schools, along with concerns over which students and neighborhoods may bear the costs of downsizing,” the report states. “Providing districts with adequate guidance and support to make efficient and equitable cuts will be key to ensuring any declines do not adversely affect student opportunities.”

In addition to state-level guidance, assistance from county offices of education and professional development opportunities for school budget officers centered on how to effectively manage declines “will be key to ensuring student services and educational opportunities do not diminish.”

Recommendations offered for policymakers include:

  • Providing more assistance and information to districts on effective and efficient downsizing.
  • Prioritizing equity in decisions on school closures.
  • Avoiding insulating districts from enrollment declines via additional funding.

PPIC hosted a webinar on the report and brief that is available to view online.