For first time since 1999, California public school enrollment falls below 6 million

Public school enrollment in San Diego County and across California has reached its lowest point in more than two decades, according to state data released Monday.

The new data are yet another reminder of the challenges schools face in retrieving students who were disconnected from school during the pandemic and figuring out how to make do with less state funding, which is based on enrollment and attendance.

On Monday, the California Department of Education released census school enrollment data for the current school year, which represents how many students were enrolled in schools as of last October.

The data show that statewide public school enrollment has fallen for the fifth year in a row and dipped below 6 million students for the first time since 1999. About 5,890,000 students were enrolled in California district and charter schools this school year, a 1.8 percent decrease from last year and 4.4 percent decrease from before the COVID-19 pandemic.

San Diego County public school enrollment stood at about 481,100 students, which is down 1.8 percent from last year and down 4.3 percent from before the pandemic.

San Diego Unified School District, meanwhile, has been losing students at a faster rate. The district’s enrollment was 95,250 for this school year, down 2.8 percent from last year and 6.9 percent from before the pandemic.

Last school year, the steepest declines statewide were seen in kindergarten and sixth grade.

This year, the biggest drops were in first grade, seventh grade and ninth grade. State education officials speculated that these drops are due to the fact that these grades are transition years, when students need to switch over to elementary, middle and high school, respectively.

Kindergarten was the only grade to add some students this year, after taking a big hit last school year during school closures.

White, Black, Filipino, American Indian, and Pacific Islander public school students all declined in enrollment at faster rates than students overall, state data show. Pacific Islander and White students saw the biggest drops at 6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

While public schools have been losing students, the number of private- and home-schooled students has been growing incrementally.

As of March 29 there were at least 539,800 private and home school students statewide, which is 8,900 more than last school year. There are about 4 percent more private- and home-schooled students than there were before the COVID-19 lockdown. Discontent about school districts’ distance learning and school closures drove some families to home-school their children or move them to private schools that reopened earlier.

After years of continuous growth, charter school enrollment this year fell for the first time since 2014, when the state began publishing charter enrollment data.

Charter schools are public schools run independently of school districts. As more charter schools have opened, they have absorbed a growing numbers of students from school districts, including in San Diego.

San Diego County charter school enrollment was growing by 6 percent each year from 2014 to 2017. After a couple years of slower growth, charter schools added 6 percent more students from 2019 to 2020, when some families left school districts for charter schools that offered more robust online learning programs during school closures.

But this year, countywide and statewide charter school enrollment fell by 3 percent and 2 percent respectively, on par with the state’s overall enrollment drop.

There are two sets of forces driving enrollment declines, according to Julien Lafortune, a research fellow at Public Policy Institute of California who has written on the subject.

There’s a long-term demographic decline that has been years in the making and predates the pandemic, fueled by lower birth and fertility rates as well as increasing out-migration from California due to a lack of affordable living.

The pandemic accelerated that decline. That includes families who left public schools for private schools and home schooling, and families whose migration from California was precipitated by the pandemic, Lafortune said. That also includes students who may have become disconnected from school amid COVID disruptions like online learning.

Enrollment declines mean that school districts receive less money, since base state funding is doled out on a per-pupil basis, based on average daily attendance.

While declining enrollment means districts have fewer students to pay for, their expenses don’t decrease proportionally, Lafortune said. Overhead costs to keep schools open remain largely fixed, and classrooms may lose a few students each year, but not enough to allow schools to let teachers go.

“Some of this is inevitable,” Lafortune said. “Over time, there will be fewer kids to serve, so as schools find a way to downsize, it’s challenging but it’s a reality districts face.”

Officials with the California Department of Education said they are working to help districts with strategies to combat declining enrollment, including: reaching out to chronically absent students, growing enrollment in transitional kindergarten and kindergarten, and supporting students in the years when they transition to elementary school , middle school and high school.

The department is also sponsoring two pieces of legislation that officials say will alleviate the financial impact of enrollment declines. One of them is Senate Bill 830, which would base state funding on enrollment, rather than attendance, and give districts additional funding to use on addressing chronic absenteeism.

The other bill sponsored by the department is Assembly Bill 1614, which would increase the state’s base per-pupil funding for schools.

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