Jan 23, 2024 - News

Virginia's public school enrollment is declining faster than initially estimated

Illustration of school desks, some of them cut out with nothing behind them.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Virginia's public school enrollment is projected to continue shrinking through the end of the decade, and at a rate faster than initially expected.

Driving the news: The just-released projections from UVA's Weldon Cooper Center are based on current population trends, birth rates and public school enrollment.

  • The data suggests the pandemic accelerated population changes already at play in Virginia and created new education trends across the state, the center's demographer Hamilton Lombard tells Axios.

Why it matters: Fewer public school students will likely lead to fewer students at Virginia colleges in the future and fewer Virginians in the workforce.

What's happening: Before the pandemic, the Weldon Cooper Center expected the state's public school enrollment to decline in the coming years based largely on steadily declining birth rates and population changes already at play, Lombard tells Axios.

  • In 2019, the center estimated the state would lose 50,000 students during the 2020s.
  • This projection ups the loss to 75,000 with 3 in 4 school districts in the state expected to see a decline by 2028.

Zoom in: What surprised the center about their findings this time around was the optional shift away from public school.

  • "One thing about the pandemic: It resulted in the largest shift to private education in the state's history," Lombard said.

Private school enrollment data tends to lag years behind for public reporting, but Lombard said census data can shed some light on Virginians' shift toward private school.

  • Before the pandemic, more than 90% of kids born in Virginia enrolled in public kindergarten, per census data.
  • In 2022, the share of Virginia born kids who enrolled in public Kindergarten dropped to 86%.
  • Last year, it was 85%.

The intrigue: Some parts of metro Richmond, like the western part of Richmond and Henrico, showed private K-12 enrollment rates at around 11%-12% in 2019.

  • In 2022, those shot up to 15% in western Henrico and 20% in western part of the city.

It's not just private schools: Virginia had 53,522 students enrolled in homeschool last year — a 40% increase from 2019, according to VDOE data.

  • 5,541 of those students were in the Richmond area — up from 4,220 for the 2019 school year.

Meanwhile: Remote work accelerated the state's population losses, particularly out of Northern Virginia, the state's population powerhouse. Virginia still saw net growth, but barely, as former Virginians headed south in droves.

  • In 2022, an estimated 36,028 Virginians moved to North Carolina and another 32,756 decamped to Florida, Cardinal News reported.

Worth noting: The broader Richmond area has been a bright spot for the state's population growth and is projected to see only minimal enrollment changes that follow the population changes already reported.

What we're watching: The new projected loss of 75,000 public school students is if some of the kids who moved to private or homeschool during the pandemic move back to public schools.

  • "If they do not, which is looking increasingly most likely, then the actual decline will be larger," Lombard said.
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