Significant enrollment declines in K-12 schools nationwide have generated conversations around the repercussions they have for public education. According to federal data, K-12 public school enrollment declined 3 percent across the United States over the past year. In May, the California Department of Education released its annual enrollment, English learner and free and reduced-price meals data.
This enrollment data is our first look at changes in essential student categories that occurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. California follows the national trend in enrollment declines and, in some categories, surpasses it. Early analysis of this data shows remarkable enrollment decreases among some of the state’s most vulnerable students. These drops raise red flags about whether we are genuinely accounting for these students and if the historic infusion of education funding is going where it is needed the most. Two of the more notable drops occurred with kindergarteners and students experiencing homelessness.
California experienced a nearly 3 percent decline in overall enrollment (160,478 fewer students) from 2019–20 to 2020–21. This marks the most significant year-over-year decrease in enrollment in the past 20 years and far outpaced the state’s projections before the pandemic. There was also a 3 percent decline in the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. Given the increased economic hardships of the pandemic, it is somewhat unclear why this number substantially declined. However, it is a significant trend to monitor once federal and state COVID-19 assistance decreases. The most substantial declines occurred with kindergarten students. The 12 percent drop from 2019–20 to 2020–21 represents over 60,000 fewer kindergarten students enrolled from the previous year, surpassing the national average decline of 9 percent.
According to the New York Times, nationally, the most severe reductions occurred in lower-income urban school districts, which is consistent with the situation in California. The Public Policy Institute of California found a more considerable drop in the state’s kindergarten enrollment for students from lower-income backgrounds (13 percent) versus students from non-low-income backgrounds (9 percent). This phenomenon has caused concern around the potential for a “kindergarten surge” in the coming school years, which may provide districts with challenges around staffing, facility use and resource allocation as state and federal emergency aid dries up.
Changes in students experiencing homelessness
In an eyebrow-raising development, the number of students identified as homeless in the CDE data has dropped 6 percent year-over-year for the past two years. The most notable reduction once again occurred among kindergarten students. Kindergarten students experiencing homelessness fell by 4,715, or 26 percent, from 2019–20 to 2020–21. This drop far exceeds the overall dip in kindergarten enrollment statewide.
While it would be reassuring if these numbers reflect a significant reduction in homelessness, there are compelling reasons to be skeptical that this is the case. Before the pandemic, a 2018 state audit found that California schools had undercounted students who lacked stable housing by 37 percent or nearly 100,000 students. Furthermore, the pandemic presented school districts with new obstacles in communicating with students and families. Combined with the demonstrated economic stressors on families who were already housing insecure, such steep declines raise the real possibility that undercounting students may persist. Failure to identify students experiencing homelessness is not a simple bureaucratic glitch. Undercounting students who lack stable housing means that a vulnerable population may miss out on invaluable instructional time and funding for critical services such as social services, transportation and counseling.
What does this mean for school board members?
The changes in enrollment in California have important implications for school board members. While school districts will not see a reduction in revenue this year, continued declining enrollment poses a risk to future funding from the state through the Local Control Funding Formula. At the same time, significant dips in the number of students experiencing homelessness or who are socioeconomically disadvantaged may also raise important concerns surrounding resource allocation through services and staffing. Overall, there are significant questions around the severity of these dips and what they might represent, making it difficult for school leaders to plan.
School board members can ask what enrollment trends look like in their districts among different student populations. Identifying unique enrollment patterns will help plan for current services with the incoming state and federal funding surge. Those patterns will also help board members prepare for future academic years where emergency aid might not be available. In both instances, board members should pay particular attention to student populations with whom economic hardship makes inclusive engagement logistically challenging. Those students’ access to essential educational supports will depend on it.