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California Public School Enrollment Drops Below 6 Million for First Time in Decades

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Children wearing masks enter a classroom
Children wearing face masks enter an elementary school classroom during summer school sessions at Happy Day School in Monterey Park on July 9, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

For the first time in decades, fewer than 6 million students are enrolled in California's K-12 public schools.

That's according to new data released Monday by the state Department of Education, showing a decline in enrollment for the fifth straight year. That downward trend is stoking fears of additional budget cuts and long-term financial instability for schools, whose funding is largely determined by total enrollment numbers and daily attendance levels.

Among key takeaways from the newly released data:

  • Statewide enrollment for the 2021-22 school year — including traditional public and charter schools — is at 5,892,240, down 1.8%, or about 110,000 students, from the previous year. That dip, however, is less steep than the 2.6% drop during the first year of the pandemic.
  • Compared to the last school year, enrollment this year dropped 3.6% for Black students, 1.9% for Asian Americans, 0.9% for Latinos and 4.9% for white students.
  • Grades one, four, seven and nine had the largest enrollment decreases this year.
  • Kindergarten enrollment increased slightly this school year over the prior year, although enrollment is still nowhere near prepandemic levels. Enrollment in 12th grade also ticked up slightly.

For the better part of a decade, public school enrollment has been in steady decline in California, due largely to a lack of affordable housing, according to education officials. But when the pandemic reached California, early job losses collided with that trend, exacerbating that decline.

Richard Barrera, a board trustee at San Diego Unified, the state’s second-largest district, said families already were moving out of the district, especially families in gentrifying areas, resulting in disproportionate losses for schools in those neighborhoods. Then workers started to lose jobs in 2020, and more families had to relocate.

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“When we opened up the schools last year, those schools had lower in-person attendance,” Barrera said. “It’s just more expensive for people with kids to live in California.”

In the years before the pandemic, enrollment in traditional, noncharter public schools fell by about 1% a year. During the first year of the pandemic, however, enrollment dropped by more than 3%, or about 175,000 students.

Even charter school enrollment slid, losing 12,600 students this year, a major reversal of historical trends. Since 2015, charter schools had seen only increases of at least 10,000 students.


State education officials did not have a clear explanation for this sudden drop.

California Charter Schools Association President Myrna Castrejón said this decline illustrates how charter schools “are facing the same statewide challenges as noncharter public schools.” She called for equitable funding for charters.

For noncharter schools, much of the enrollment drop during the first year of the pandemic was due to tens of thousands of parents opting not to enroll their children in kindergarten. Most school campuses were closed at the time and children were learning online.

This year, with school buildings open, kindergarten enrollment went up by more than 7,000 students, recovering slightly from last year’s 60,000-student plunge.

Enrollment numbers for first graders, however, dropped by 18,000 students this year — one of the steepest drops for a single grade level — suggesting that many students who were of kindergarten age in 2020 did not return to public schools for first grade.

State education officials would not comment on where those students went. Some school district officials said they also are looking for answers.

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“It’s a problem across all grade levels,” said Barrett Snider of Capitol Advisors, a lobbying firm for school districts. “We just aren’t sure where they’ve gone.”

Because most of California’s public schools are funded based on a combination of enrollment and attendance, small school districts are especially feeling the pain. Just a few students leaving can mean large chunks of money gone from their budgets.

“We’ve had declining enrollment since the turn of the century,” said Linda Irving, superintendent of Sebastopol Union School District. “As a school gets smaller, it gets more difficult to provide quality programming, like music classes.”

Her 788-student district has been using one-time state grants to cover its costs, Irving said, but she needs a more permanent solution.

It can be depressing working at a school where the student population is shrinking, Irving said. Administrators have a marketing budget to attract more families, yet they also are being forced to cut staff.

“I was driving home from the gym yesterday, and I heard another superintendent on the radio,” Irving said. “We’re competing against each other.”

Brett McFadden, superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, said a large portion of the residents in his rural community work in the service industry and had to seek other jobs when businesses closed during the pandemic. Others left more recently, as the state began enforcing masking rules and issuing vaccine mandates.

“It’s tough to do exit interviews, but our takeaway is that people left because of jobs,” McFadden said. “Or they left because private schools weren’t enforcing mask mandates.”

According to state data, the enrollment in McFadden's district was stable before the pandemic, at around 2,800 students. Enrollment is currently down to 2,605, and McFadden notes that he lost 197 students since the school year started, which translates to more than $2 million in lost funding.

“Declining enrollment cannot be fixed,” he said. “I think we have to recognize that declining enrollment is part of broader demographic trends that are happening in our state.”

Softening the blow

State leaders are floating measures to lessen the pain of declining enrollment.

In his proposed budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would allow school districts to use a three-year average attendance rate to calculate next year’s funding. This could be a substantial help, especially because attendance at most schools plummeted during this year’s omicron surge.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat from Glendale, authored Senate Bill 830, which would pay districts based on enrollment rather than attendance.

While the policy debate over enrollment- versus attendance-based funding has been ongoing for years, Portantino said this is the right time to make the change because of the state’s surplus and the acute crisis schools are facing.

“School districts have to budget based on enrollment,” Portantino said. “It makes no sense to penalize them if you have absences throughout the year.”

Under his proposal, districts would still be funded based on attendance but could apply for additional money based on enrollment. The bill would require that districts use 30% of the additional funding to address chronic absenteeism.

While these proposals might ease the fiscal effects of ebbing enrollments, district leaders still don’t have a clear picture of why so many students are leaving. And many feel powerless to reverse the trend.

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“Schools have been reacting to a public-health crisis and trying to keep their lights on, so when kids disappear there’s not a lot of capacity to chase them down and see what happened,” said Snider, the lobbyist. “But I think that’s going to be a big focus as we climb out of this.”

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