America's public schools are losing students
The pandemic has supercharged a trend that has plagued districts across the U.S. for years — students are fleeing public schools.
Why it matters: Public schools lose funding as they lose students, and some schools have been forced to shutter altogether.
- That disadvantages the many millions of students — typically lower-income students in cities — who can't turn to private schools or homeschooling.
By the numbers: Public schools lost more than a million students from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment fell from 50.8 million to 49.4 million.
What's happening: Over the last decade, a number of states, including Michigan and New Hampshire, saw enrollment fall primarily due to declining birthrates. Others, like Texas, saw numbers rise due to immigration.
- Then the pandemic hit, and public schools were subjected to state and local guidelines. Many of them flip-flopped on virtual versus in-person learning.
- Widespread teacher and staff shortages exacerbated the problem. Students rapidly fell behind. That pushed frustrated parents to pull their kids out.
- As a result, private schools and charter schools gained students. The number of homeschooled students doubled to about 5 million.
Zoom in: Districts from coast to coast are responding to the exodus by shuttering entire schools, The Wall Street Journal reports:
- "The school board in Jefferson County, Colo., outside Denver, voted in November to close 16 schools. St. Paul, Minn., last summer closed five schools. The Oakland, Calif., school board last February voted to close seven schools after years of declining enrollment and financial strife."
Major metropolitan areas have been hit the hardest. A Wall Street Journal analysis found "enrollment fell in roughly 85 of the nation’s largest 100 public-school districts."
- Enrollment in New York City's public schools, the country's largest school district, dropped by 8.3% from 2020 to 2022, according to a fiscal watchdog funded by the city.
- Charter school enrollment in NYC increased roughly 7.8% over the same period.
- It may take years for some students to recover from pandemic-era learning loss, according to a report from NWEA, a nonprofit group that administers standardized tests.
What to watch: The federal government projects public school enrollment will fall even further — to 47.3 million — by 2030. Even the districts that have seen rising numbers in recent years are expected to shed students.