California’s TK-12 enrollment fails to rebound in a return to ‘normalcy’

Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

New state data Tuesday dashed educators’ hopes for a post-COVID rebound statewide in TK-12 enrollment.

Although substantially less severe than the past two years of record declines, the number of students enrolled in California public schools fell 39,696 to 5.85 million in 2022-23. That one-year drop of 0.67% “is about right from a trend standpoint and brings us more in line with the long-term projections” for the rest of the decade and years preceding the pandemic, said Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT, a school finance agency.

A decade ago, enrollment statewide was 6.23 million. In 2020-21, the first year of the pandemic, enrollment fell 2.60%; last year it dropped 1.84%. Three years ago, the California Department of Finance projected an 11.4% decline in statewide enrollment by 2031, a loss of 703,000 students from pre-pandemic 2019-20.

As for the past two years, the declines varied widely throughout the state, with the biggest drop, of 2.6% — 34,000 students — in Los Angeles County, followed by 2% in Orange County and 1.7% in the Bay Area.

Enrollments grew 0.6% in the Sacramento area, the largest increase among the state’s 10 regions, including 3,000 students in Sacramento County. Enrollments were flat in both the Northern San Joaquin Valley and the Inland Empire, which includes Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Enrollment is based on student registrations on Oct. 5 last year, the first Wednesday in October. Many superintendent and education groups had been optimistic that a return to post-pandemic “normalcy,” without mask and testing mandates and COVID disruptions, would produce a heartening upsurge in enrollment. 

But the new normal appears to be a slow decline, a product of many factors, including a declining birth rate and migration from California. The total TK-12 enrollment this year was close to what the Department of Finance had forecast last September, when it projected a decline of 30,000 students and 0.51%. It was only 10,000 students and 0.16% off.

Districts also have been counting on the continued phase-in of transitional kindergarten to bolster enrollments or at least cushion a decline. And indeed, kindergarten enrollment, which includes TK, rose nearly 26,000 to 496,000, the largest increase in any grade and the highest total among grades.

But even there, the news was mixed. In budgeting for this year, the Department of Finance had predicted the average daily attendance of students in TK would be 120,000 students. But as of the first half of the year, it was only 91,000, according to district reports filed with the California Department of Education.

Reasons for the lower numbers are myriad, experts say. Some parents simply may not be aware that TK is expanding, experts say, particularly in a post-pandemic period when family engagement at schools may remain low and uncertainties linger. 

“Many families are likely accustomed to their child care or pre-K arrangements,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “Unless local schools feel ready to expand TK, they may not alert parents to this new, free option for 4-year-olds.”

Raising awareness of the new program may be the key to boosting enrollment, many suggest, as life slowly emerges from the pandemic era.

“Districts across the state are in different phases of implementation,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, an advocacy organization. “Some have had strong TK and expanded TK programs for a long time, which has made the expansion of these programs easier to ramp up. Other districts are in the earlier phases and may not have the same community awareness about these programs.” 

Besides kindergarten, the only other grades that saw increases were first, seventh and 11th grades. Those with the biggest declines were eighth grade, down 20,600; tenth grade, down 13,300, and second grade, down 9,600.

What happened to the 40,000 fewer students will likely remain largely a mystery. Most didn’t newly enroll in private schools; private school enrollment rose by about 6,000 students, a bit more than 1%, to 504,600 and is 15,600 above pre-COVID 2019-20.

Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private Schools, attributes the increases to efforts made by private schools to remain open for in-person instruction during the pandemic. He also thinks that private schools have benefited from labor actions that have resulted in lost classroom time for students.

“It pains me to think private schools may be benefiting to some extent from the perception that students are being used as pawns in labor disputes,” he said.

Based on affidavits that parents are supposed to file with the state, many fewer children are attending home schools. Enrollment, as of Feb. 28, had dropped 9,257 students –18% – from last year to 43,366 students. The state defines home schools as those filing an affidavit for a private school educating five or fewer students.

Many students likely moved with their families from California. Between July 2021 and July 2022, 343,000 people migrated from the state, the largest exodus of any state except for New York. But families have no obligation to report their departure to the school district or the state. Another possibility, hard to prove, is that some families are homeschooling without filing an affidavit with the state as required. Some school districts that check with families who don’t return to school in the fall may anecdotally know if the situation exists, but the state doesn’t collect data beyond what families provide.

The great majority of students who newly enrolled or re-enrolled were low-income children: 84,094 students above the year before. That number is consistent with high rates of chronic absenteeism among low-income students. Some families, living in multigenerational housing, kept children home to avoid COVID last year. The total of low-income students is 3.6 million students this year; they make up 61.5% of California students, up 2 percentage points from 2021-22 but the same proportion as in 2016-17.

Steep rise in homeless students

Homeless students increased sharply: 9% to 187,300 students. And these numbers do not include the end of the COVID moratorium on evictions, which will play out this year.

This increase may be a potential rebound after several years of decreasing enrollment for this group of students, according to Angela James, research director at the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools. The closure of school campuses and competing crises at the height of the pandemic also made it challenging for school staff to identify a student whose family may have been experiencing homelessness. 

“We’re talking about a highly mobile and fragile part of the student population, and it became even more so during that period,” said James.

Additionally, students experiencing homelessness were already considered undercounted prior to the pandemic, according to a 2019 state audit

A potential re-identification of students does not negate the rising housing costs that families are facing at this time, James cautioned. “The rapidly-escalating rents in California cities must be playing a role, the shortage of housing … those things have accelerated post-pandemic, not declined,” she said. 

At this point, the state’s enrollment data for ethnic and racial groups is incomplete because Los Angeles Unified failed to record the data for 70,000 students — about 1 in 7 students in the district. That’s a big enough number to affect statewide percentages. State officials said the district will be fixing the problem.

In a statement Tuesday, the district said it is investigating why its data failed to upload to the state’s CALPADS platform and resolve the technical issue. Meanwhile, the data on race and ethnicity are accurate and available on Los Angeles Unified’s own  Open Data Dashboard.

All five of California’s largest districts lost enrollment this year, led by the 10,000 fewer students in Los Angeles Unified, a drop of 1.8%. Since the start of the pandemic, its enrollment has fallen 50,000 to 388,000. Enrollments fell an additional 1,700 in San Diego and 1,100 in Long Beach, as well as a few hundred in Fresno and Elk Grove.

A half-dozen districts with the biggest one-year changes reflect the intrastate migration from the coast to inland areas, where housing is cheaper. Montebello Unified, -6.1%; Compton Unified, -4.9%; and Baldwin Park Unified, -4.9%, are in Los Angeles County. Menifee Union Elementary, +7.1%; Beaumont Unified, +5.33%; and Perris Union High School District, +3.75%, are in Riverside County,

Enrollment is an important factor but only an indirect financial factor for funding purposes. Districts are actually funded on the yearly average of a district’s total student average daily attendance or ADA. With chronic absences tripling statewide to 30% last year, districts have a chance to mitigate further enrollment declines by increasing attendance, although that hasn’t happened to a great extent this year. 

“Today’s enrollment update is yet another reminder that California’s demographics are changing, and that school districts in many parts of the state should be bracing to serve fewer students over the long term,” said Carrie Hahnel, senior associate partner, with Bellwether, a national nonprofit that works to improve educational opportunities for underserved students.

“This is not just a pandemic issue, and state and local leaders can’t pretend that enrollments will rebound. District leaders in declining-enrollment areas should be having conversations with community stakeholders now about how to consolidate schools and programs while increasing the quality of what districts are offering to every student,” she said.

EdSource writers Karen D’Souza, Diana Lambert and Betty Márquez Rosales contributed to this article.

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