Public School Enrollment Decline: Why Students Are Leaving, Where They’re Going, and Why It Matters

One study found 36% of parents who have chosen to homeschool their children did so because of school safety issues.

Public School Enrollment Decline: Why Students Are Leaving, Where They’re Going, and Why It Matters

Photo: jStock, Adobe Stock

Between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of students enrolled in public schools rose steadily as the U.S. population grew from 316.1 million to 328.3 million. Once the pandemic hit, enrollment numbers fell by more than a million. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, the number of students enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Once public elementary and secondary schools reopened for in-person learning at some point in 2021, enrollment jumped back up to around 50.1 million. However, in 2023, the number fell back down to 49.7 million, which is still 2.09% below pre-pandemic levels, according to Scholaroo. The data is depicted in the graph below.

Source: Scholaroo

This significant drop in public school enrollment raises several important questions:

  1. Why does it matter?
  2. Where did all those students go?
  3. Why did they leave the public school system?

Why Does the Public School Enrollment Decline Matter?

While there are countless reasons why the drop in enrollment is concerning, one of the most obvious is that public schools lose funding as they lose students. For instance, in Massachusetts, school funding is primarily based on a per-pupil allotment each school district receives — i.e. the higher the number of students, the more state and local funding it receives.

“You will have to struggle with balanced budgets as student numbers decline,” Glenn Koocher, executive director for the Massachusetts School Committees Association, told Mass Live. “It is the educational story since the beginning of time.”

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told The 74 that the district saw a 5.9% decline during the 2021-2022 school year. Of the 10 largest school districts in the U.S., eight have seen a decline in enrollment each year from 2018 to 2022, as depicted in the graph below. A Wall Street Journal analysis found enrollment fell in roughly 85 of the nation’s 100 largest public school districts.

Source: The 74

The current teacher shortage is exacerbated by the enrollment decline since less funding for schools means less money available to hire new teachers or offer better pay to current ones. Many schools and districts are currently relying on federal COVID relief funds to address this problem, but what happens when those funds run out?

Carvalho was asked what would happen to the district if it didn’t turn enrollment trends around by the time federal relief funds dry up in 2024. 

“Armageddon,” he responded. “It’s going to be a hurricane of massive proportions.”

The exodus from public schools has also forced some schools to close altogether which has disproportionately impacted lower-income families, many of whom can’t consider alternative schooling such as private or charter schools, further widening the class divide.

The trend is also widening the divide between urban and rural students due to accessibility. According to the Brookings Institution, 92% of people who live in urban areas live within five miles of a private school while only 34% of people who live in rural areas have a private school within the same radius.

Where Did the Students Go?

Researchers from Stanford University found 14% of students who were disenrolled from public schools between fall 2019 through spring 2022 went to private schools and 26% switched to homeschooling.

In 2019, the last time official data was collected by NCES on private school enrollment, around 4.7 million K-12 students (9% of all K-12 students) were enrolled in private schools, which was not measurably different from the number enrolled in the fall of 2009. However, since the pandemic, private schools have reported an increase in enrollment.

During the 2020-2021 school year, 35% of private schools reported an increase in enrollment, according to CATO. Comparatively, 26.5% reported a decrease and 38.2% reported no change.

A subsequent CATO study found 55% of private schools reported enrollment increases between the 2021-2022 school year and the 2022-2023 school year. Twenty percent saw decreases and 25% reported no change. The average change was around 10 students per school which is about a 5% increase from the 2019-2020 average. Nearly half also reported having more applicants than available openings.

Charter schools pulled many students away from public schools during and after the pandemic. During the 2020-2021 school year, 7.5% of all public school students were enrolled in charter schools, up from 6.8% in 2019-2020, says the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Enrollment in New York City Public Schools, the country’s largest school district, dropped drastically from 2018 to 2022 (as seen in the previous The 74 graph). During the same period, enrollment in NYC charter schools increased by around 7.8%, according to the New York City Independent Budget Office. In Alabama and Oklahoma, charter school enrollment increased by a whopping 65% and 78%, respectively.

Here’s a breakdown of charter school enrollment change by state from academic years 2020 to 2021:

Homeschooling also increased significantly during and after the pandemic. A 2021 report from the Bellwether Education Partners, commissioned by the Walton Family Foundation, found nearly 2.6 million kids have switched from traditional school to homeschooling since the start of the pandemic, placing the total number of homeschooled kids at about five million — around 11% of all U.S. households.

A similar survey conducted by Q for Quinn found in addition to 11% of parents currently homeschooling their children, an additional 15% said they plan to transition to homeschooling in the near future. Below are the nine states with the largest percentage of homeschooled children.

Source: Q for Quinn

Why Are Parents Pulling Kids from Public Schools?

Some parents turned to charter or private schools during the pandemic since they can make their own rules. During the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, only 5% of private schools were virtual, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Comparatively, 62% of public schools started the year remotely, according to Burbio.

Some working parents had no choice but to enroll their children in private schools when public schools went and remained completely virtual. Many parents were also angered that some public schools kept mask mandates in place longer than private or public schools, and some chose to pull kids from public schooling and opt for homeschooling due to fear of exposing their children to COVID.

Others were able to observe their children’s education firsthand due to remote learning at home and were subsequently dissatisfied with what they saw. Alex Spurrier, a senior analyst at Bellwether and one of the authors of the previously cited report, said many parents decided they wanted more individualized learning options for their kids.

“Parents want greater personalization, and it seems like a trend that’s here to stay,” Romy Drucker, the K-12 education director at the Walton Family Foundation, told Axios. “Schools will have to earn back the trust of parents.”

Tailoring lesson plans to meet students’ unique needs has become increasingly difficult for public schools as they continue to struggle with teacher shortages. Widespread teacher and staff shortages have led to students falling behind in their education. Reading scores for elementary school students plunged to their lowest levels since 1990 during the first two years of the pandemic, according to Axios. To help public school students “catch up in the classroom,” in Oct. 2022, the federal government allocated $122 billion to support state and local efforts.

With school violence also on the rise, both between students and against staff, it is likely more parents will consider alternative schooling options as resources and staffing continue to dwindle. In the Q for Quinn survey, parents were asked why they chose to homeschool their children. The top reasons cited were:

  • 34% of parents chose homeschooling because of the safety issues such as school shootings, drugs, and negative peer pressure
  • 12% of parents want religious or moral instruction that aligns with their beliefs
  • 17% of parents express dissatisfaction with the academic instruction
  • 11% of parents desire a more personalized approach to education

New data from Qualtrics also shows only 28% of traditional public school parents feel their children are reasonably safe while at school. Comparatively, 39% of private school parents and 37% of charter school parents feel their children are safe at school.

Whatever the reasoning might be for a parent removing their child(ren), it would behoove local, state, and federal officials to continue to address these concerns before more money is taken away from public schools. Not addressing these issues will further disadvantage the already disadvantaged, and if recent history has taught us anything, further dividing our country will likely have significant consequences.

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About the Author


Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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4 responses to “Public School Enrollment Decline: Why Students Are Leaving, Where They’re Going, and Why It Matters”

  1. randy says:

    It may likely be too late to reverse a self induced trend that started decades ago.

    Continually enabling the students and parents behavior at the cost of other students (removing all the good students from a classroom for the sake of one ill tempered child) and teachers (school leaders not standing behind one another and terminating rather than retraining teachers) has lead to this dilemma. State officials cannot correct this by throwing money at the issue.

    Holding children and their parents responsible for their disruptive behavior by removing them from the classroom will enable the other students and parents of those students to feel safe in school again, Its that simple. Several decades ago you would rarely ever see or hear of a student physically engaging a teacher or administration, now its a common occurrence. Educational and judicial systems .. you did it to yourself.

    Larger alternative schools are needed in every district across this nation and this is how to address this situation. If it is not acceptable in the adult, working world why would you teach a child that it is acceptable in a educational facility. Teachers absolutely have a legal right to defend themselves as well as separate enraged students, preventing harm. All to often I hear teachers being instructed by their school attorney, leadership to only use reasonable force as “a last resort” or encouraged not to physically engage at all. There has been increasing juvenile violence because they are being taught that no one can touch them in a school setting. This is a disservice to this nations children by enabling this type of behavior, and one could argue it likely leads to similar taught behavior as a graduate in the adult world.

    You play nice with other children or you leave the playground, not the other way around.

  2. Steve Manns says:

    Randy makes very valid points. Being brought up as a child of public school teachers I never thought that I would remove my children from public education. Two of three received an online Christian school education and are surpassing the oldest who received a public school education. The disruption starts in kindergarten with one child taking away the opportunity to learn from about twenty good kids. The administration refused to help the teacher and parents of the good kids. The current public school system may need to go away. This was all pre-covid decline in public education.

  3. Paul R. Lewis says:

    Countless reasons? There’s one reason, you brought politics into schools and you blocked parents from knowing what you are doing to their kids. You poked the Mama Bear, and she’s not having it.

  4. Educator says:

    As a school administrator who has been fighting this battle for 30 years, I can confidently say that this has root cause in our culture. Our culture has become defiant of all authority: legal, scholastic. Military, and familial. There is a correlation between the weakening of our schools from the 1990s onward. Once corporal punishment was removed as an educators tool – that final level of authority, it was replaced with suspension in order to let the parents meet out justice as they saw fit. The parents of 2023 are more concerned with their social media presence than they are with their child’s school behavior.

    The new way of handling student discipline is to punish the school for not making school interesting or engaging enough. The kids cannot help but misbehave. The adults cannot replace the likes and emojis that they constantly get in online interactions. We see the results of this with a young generation of workers who generally don’t like to work. Employees with cell phones at the ready only half focused on the work at hand. To change this, we need to hand some authority and trust back to our public schools. I know this won’t happen. I think the ultimate outcome will instead be the US continuing it’s drive to Idiocracy until the nation is just a cog in the UNs wheel.

    Luckily, I will be gone before that happens.

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