Education Beat Podcast — Why aren't more districts investing in tutoring? — Listen Now!

California's Enrollment Rollercoaster

EdSource Special Report

California K-12 enrollment plunges again, falls below 6 million

Census Day enrollment drops by 110,000 this year on top of 161,000 last year

By

The article was updated on April 11 to clarify that Census Day measures enrollment as of the first Wednesday in October not on that date.

Dashing hopes for a rebound, K-12 enrollment has fallen sharply again this year, by an additional 110,300 students, pushing total public school enrollment in California below 6 million for the first time since 1999-2000.

The 1.8% enrollment decline, on top of the 2.6% record drop in 2020-21, is a combined loss of 271,000 students since Covid struck in spring 2020. Enrollment as of Census Day, always the first Wednesday of October, was 5.89 million students this year; five years ago, it was 6.23 million.

The decline includes charter school enrollment, which dropped for the first time year-to-year in two decades, by 12,600 – 1.8%, the same percentage as school districts. “Charter schools are public schools and are facing the same statewide demographic challenges as noncharter public schools,” said Myrna Castrejón, CEO and president of the California Charter Schools Association.

For months, districts have known their own enrollment figures, which can vary significantly across regions and counties. The information is used to plan budgets for the next year and make long-term plans for staffing and close or open schools. New Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he would analyze enrollment trends to develop a strategic plan to attract families back to LAUSD schools as part of his first 100 days plan. Other districts will likely do so, too.

For Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators, the new numbers will add urgency to decisions on how to fund schools post-Covid. Schools are funded largely by students’ average daily attendance, but drops in enrollment will affect their bottom lines and ability to meet expenses.

As they did last year, student enrollments hemorrhaged in Los Angeles County, down 3.6% this year on top of 3.2% in 2020, and the Bay Area, down 3.3% on top of the 3.1% in 2020. Three of the state’s four largest school districts alone — Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified — accounted for nearly a quarter of the loss in student enrollment this year. Enrollment in Fresno Unified, now the third-largest district, barely budged over the past two years.

But the decline was uneven throughout the state, with a slight increase, though less than 1% in enrollment this year, in what’s called Superior California, which is eastern California from Sacramento to the Oregon border; the Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside counties; and the San Joaquin Valley area.

Some of the enrollment increase continued a decadelong migration inland from Silicon Valley, Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles to where homes are bigger and rents are cheaper. But Covid, with the ability to work remotely, may have quickened the pace.

The drop in enrollment also was not equally spread among ethnic and racial groups. Latinos, who comprise 55% of K-12 students, declined only 0.9% this year, and Asian student enrollment declined 1.9%, while Black enrollment dropped 3.6% on top of 4.5% last year. White enrollment fell 4.9% on top of 5.6% last year; the two-year loss of 141,000 students is more than half of the total decline in students statewide.

Enrollment figures include both school districts and charter schools. Last year, charter schools, which serve about 1 in 9 students, grew by 22,542 students, while traditional school district enrollment declined 183,020.

What happened to the students?

School boards and superintendents were crossing fingers that enrollment would recover quickly this year, as with the economy. That didn’t happen, but top-line enrollment data alone doesn’t yet answer big questions: Where did the students go – to another district or out of state? Did they go to private schools, or did families try homeschooling? Might they still return to public schools? Did tens of thousands of families disengage and lose touch with the school over the past two years?

Most families don’t tell school districts why they’re leaving the district, and few districts do follow-up surveys to find out why. But enrollment affidavits that private schools provide the state show that private school enrollment grew by 18,528 students — 3.9% — to 489,488  in 2021-22. That’s actually a reversal of a downward trend; in 2012-13 private school enrollment was 516,197, according to data by the California Association of Private School Organizations.

 Factoring in a declining birth rate and a decline in in-state migration, demographers for the California Department of Finance before the pandemic were projecting 703,000 fewer students – 11% statewide – by 2029-30. Did Covid accelerate or compound that number? It’s hard to tell.

 “I thought there might have been a bounce-back, but instead there wasn’t,” said Julien Lafortune, research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, who has analyzed enrollment data.

 Enrollments declined from 2020 in all grades but two and fell significantly in half of the grades. But enrollment did increase in kindergarten, by 7,756 students, and in 12th grade, by 3,577. Edgar Zazueta, the new executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, took solace in that.

 “The latest statewide enrollment data captures a complicated picture for our schools,” he wrote in an email. “On one hand, we should be worried about the decline in overall enrollment trends that we are continuing to witness. We should not only be concerned about the fiscal consequences of having less students, we need to question where the students are going and how their educational needs are being met.”

 “On the other hand,” he said, “there appears to be some glimmers of hope in the numbers. An increase in kindergarten population could mean that the expansion of TK could be bringing in more students into the system. The increase in 12th grade students could be a sign that the system is doing a better job of keeping more students on track towards graduation.”

 The 495,327 seniors in the Class of 2022 who showed up on Census Day last fall were about 1,400 students more than when the class arrived in ninth grade. This could indicate that some students who failed to graduate in 2021 re-enrolled this year to earn their missing credits. That’s what happened in Los Angeles Unified, said Veronica Arreguín, the district’s chief strategy officer.

 Last year, more than a third of the total decline was in kindergarten. School districts were hoping that, with the return to in-person instruction everywhere last fall, parents who didn’t enroll their kids during distance learning would enroll in kindergarten or first grade. Kindergarten did grow, but the increase didn’t make up for the 61,000-student drop in fall 2020. And first grade enrollment plummeted this year by an additional 18,292 students.

 Some experts suggest that last year’s missing kindergartners didn’t actually forgo kindergarten, parents just waited to send them until it was less scary, closer to what the kindergarten experience is supposed to be. 

“Maybe some kids didn’t skip kindergarten, maybe they just delayed it, and/or more than usual did it twice,” said Shantel Meek, founding director of the Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University. “That’s what I would have done. Done it twice or hold them back.”

 Scott Moore, head of Kidango, a nonprofit organization that runs many Bay Area child care centers agreed that’s what may have happened. 

“I would guess that for children who missed kindergarten in 20-21 due to the pandemic, their parents decided to enroll them in K in 21-22 and not 1st grade despite being age eligible,” he wrote. “They are basically red shirting their child.”

 Deborah Stipek, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an early education expert, said multiple factors could be at work.

 “Probably both homeschooling and private school likely played a role,” she said, “but there is also a decline in births in California and an increase in people leaving the state,” she said.

EdSource reporters Karen D’Souza and Kate Sequeira contributed to this article.

Read more:

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (21)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Allan Lacayo 2 months ago2 months ago

    Question 1: Has there been a migration from private schools to public schools in CA? Private schools have also lost enrollment since 2018-19. Question 2: Has someone aggregated school districts by CA region (North CA, SF BAY, LA , Coastal, any other geographic/demographic classification system)? With many major private employers leaving the state without replacement job opportunities, and with so many embedded benefits to local homeowners (Prop 13, zoning, etc.) reaching retirement age with fewer than … Read More

    Question 1: Has there been a migration from private schools to public schools in CA?
    Private schools have also lost enrollment since 2018-19.

    Question 2: Has someone aggregated school districts by CA region (North CA, SF BAY, LA , Coastal, any other geographic/demographic classification system)? With many major private employers leaving the state without replacement job opportunities, and with so many embedded benefits to local homeowners (Prop 13, zoning, etc.) reaching retirement age with fewer than 2 children (now adults postponing child bearing and rearing, is the decline in school enrollment analyzed as a function of the age and household and economic life cycles?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago

      Allan, private school enrollment rebounded this year to about 488,000 students – about where it was in 2018-19. This is the total figure; I believe that parochial schools in Los Angeles and San Bernardino have lost student enrollment; growth in other private schools was somewhat greater.

  2. Jim Stoch 2 months ago2 months ago

    How do we get these comments to decision makers in Sacramento? Seems they are not getting this feedback as they continue to make decisions that radicalize education without improving it. Career Technical Education, for example, prepares high school students for post-secondary education and training that leads to high wage, robot-proof occupations in growing career path. Including college. In other words, where the jobs are and will be. It's woefully under-funded and with the current method … Read More

    How do we get these comments to decision makers in Sacramento? Seems they are not getting this feedback as they continue to make decisions that radicalize education without improving it. Career Technical Education, for example, prepares high school students for post-secondary education and training that leads to high wage, robot-proof occupations in growing career path. Including college. In other words, where the jobs are and will be. It’s woefully under-funded and with the current method of funding public education, especially with dropping enrollment, CTE’s future in California is not bright. The world’ 5th largest economy needs #1 K-12 education. That’s where budget surplus should go. Teach people how to fish instead of giving out fish.

  3. Suzie Lee 2 months ago2 months ago

    I pulled my children out of school after getting a call from the head health nurse at the school district. Asking me why my childrens vaccine records were not on file. I explained that I had a written dr. Exemption for both of my children that was valid until they graduated high school. She then informed me that that exemption was no longer valid, after doing some research I learned that right before school was … Read More

    I pulled my children out of school after getting a call from the head health nurse at the school district. Asking me why my childrens vaccine records were not on file. I explained that I had a written dr. Exemption for both of my children that was valid until they graduated high school. She then informed me that that exemption was no longer valid, after doing some research I learned that right before school was to open that year California had passed a law saying that all exemptions had to be digitally put into a data base by a Dr., not only that, doctors are only allowed to write up to five exemptions, if more than that are signed and submitted they will be investigated and potentially lose their medical license. So you tell me, what is the real reason for the decline in enrollment? I was happy sending my children to school, but apparently according to my state government, my children do not belong. So now they are at an online school. California really needs to stop pretending like unvaccinated kids pose any type of risk to anyone. Until these policies and laws change, the current drop will continue, heaven forbid they make Covid vaccines mandatory.

  4. Suzie Lee 2 months ago2 months ago

    I pulled my children out of school after getting a call from the head health nurse at the school district, asking me why my children's vaccine records were not on file. I explained that I had a written doctor's exemption for both of my children that was valid until they graduated high school. She then informed me that that exemption was no longer valid; after doing some research I learned that right before school was … Read More

    I pulled my children out of school after getting a call from the head health nurse at the school district, asking me why my children’s vaccine records were not on file. I explained that I had a written doctor’s exemption for both of my children that was valid until they graduated high school. She then informed me that that exemption was no longer valid; after doing some research I learned that right before school was to open that year, California had passed a law saying that all exemptions had to be digitally put into a data base by a doctor – not only that, doctors are only allowed to write up to five exemptions. If more than that are signed and submitted they will be investigated and potentially lose their medical license.

    So you tell me, what is the real reason for the decline in enrollment? I was happy sending my children to school, but apparently according to my state government, my children do not belong. So now they are at an online school. California really needs to stop pretending like unvaccinated kids pose any type of risk to anyone. Until these policies and laws change, the current drop will continue – heaven forbid they make Covid vaccines mandatory.

  5. Nicole Amaral 3 months ago3 months ago

    Wonder why? I wish people would be honest. My son was pulled from public school because we didn’t trust the school district and most teachers. Teacher’s unions are primarily to blame.

  6. Gina Lancelot 3 months ago3 months ago

    Why? School districts illegally mandated vaccines without exemptions, sent threatening emails and letters to parents regarding getting their children vaccinated or their children cannot attend school. They put forth timelines counting down to when they would no longer accept healthy children in their schools. Parents have had enough of the dictatorial policy making and disregard for parents rights. Oh, and masking, and CRT, and releasing vaccination status to all staff and teachers in SDUSD.

  7. Jennifer Bestor 3 months ago3 months ago

    Can we discuss funding adequacy now? Or do we dither for a few months and end up just paying off more of the pension overhang? Fewer children to educate would seem to open up a golden window of opportunity. We could move towards adequately funding the children who are here. We could increase LCFF funding more than the cost-of-living and get ahead of the inflation curve. Instead, we seem to … Read More

    Can we discuss funding adequacy now? Or do we dither for a few months and end up just paying off more of the pension overhang?

    Fewer children to educate would seem to open up a golden window of opportunity. We could move towards adequately funding the children who are here. We could increase LCFF funding more than the cost-of-living and get ahead of the inflation curve.

    Instead, we seem to be considering a swap of ‘enrollment’ for ‘attendance’ that would, if one shakes those numbers hard, not progressively address disadvantage but simply reward a set of poor performing districts (notably LAUSD) at the expense of better performing ones.

    We could even entertain a regional cost supplement for LCFF — though that would cost the state nothing in San Francisco, San Mateo, Marin, Napa, and Santa Clara, where $1200 million of property tax allocated for K-12 education is now being side-armed to county and city governments (up from $800 million two years ago). A small return of the excess state taxes they paid in the other high-cost counies would allow the inclusion school districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Cruz and Orange.

    Or we can dither, and pay down the pension overhang — paying for yesterday’s education rather than tomorrow’s children.

  8. Jason Cabral 3 months ago3 months ago

    I considered pulling my daughter our of her elementary school (SDUSD) as BLM curriculum was advocated in public schools and the SDUSD Superintendent flew a BLM flag. I applied to a Catholic School and was set to leave. Her school did not adopt crazy CRT/BLM/Anti-racist (actually totally racist) leftist activist agendas, so I kept her in. The comments are the real article here.

  9. Edward Lee 3 months ago3 months ago

    Let’s be honest because parents are smart. No one leaves a good school or district. Families are leaving because the quality of education is really poor in CA. Instead of trying to fix and improve and stop the indoctrination, unions and leftist are pushing even harder. Anyone that has the option is finding an alternative, like home schooling or private. Either change it or be left in a desperate situation. Parents are fighting back and … Read More

    Let’s be honest because parents are smart. No one leaves a good school or district. Families are leaving because the quality of education is really poor in CA. Instead of trying to fix and improve and stop the indoctrination, unions and leftist are pushing even harder. Anyone that has the option is finding an alternative, like home schooling or private. Either change it or be left in a desperate situation. Parents are fighting back and we won’t let you indoctrinate our kids anymore.

  10. Cindy 3 months ago3 months ago

    I kept reading hoping to find any sources or reliable information about how poorly schools handled remote learning, their inadequate technology and human resources, and the violation of our rights as parents and human beings with mask and vaxx mandates. I would have pulled my children out of school too if they kept with that nonsense. Luckily, my District has removed the mask mandates and we filed a religious exemption.

  11. S.James 3 months ago3 months ago

    Geee, it’s nothing to do with failed School Union Leadership and policies that make little common sense does it? What took place in Loudoun County Virginia recently may help Sacramento understand more clearly perhaps!

  12. Heather Remund 3 months ago3 months ago

    The push down of academics into kindergarten and the inappropriate age expectations are driving families to other options like homeschooling and charter schools. Adding 4 year olds to an already broken system without the proper training for teachers, age and developmentally appropriate environments is nothing more than a cash grab to get kids in seats to improve their bottom line. So sad for our kids and our educational system that ignores everything we know … Read More

    The push down of academics into kindergarten and the inappropriate age expectations are driving families to other options like homeschooling and charter schools. Adding 4 year olds to an already broken system without the proper training for teachers, age and developmentally appropriate environments is nothing more than a cash grab to get kids in seats to improve their bottom line.

    So sad for our kids and our educational system that ignores everything we know about child development and learning and continues to peddle academics over developmentally appropriate practice.

  13. tomm 3 months ago3 months ago

    John and Daniel, I think you guys left a lot out of that article and the people who commented nailed it. More balance please if you want to retain readership.

  14. Robert Beach 3 months ago3 months ago

    Maybe you should ask the parents and not the liberals that are causing all the problems in the school systems

  15. Kai Chang 3 months ago3 months ago

    Ridiculous anti-scientific Covid restrictions and masks aside, the article also forgot to include that parents are fleeing California public schools because of radical gender ideology, as well as CRT. Parents are sick of left wing radicals trying to indoctrinate and groom their children in disgusting ideologies and immoral principles. Parents are starting to say that enough is enough, even in a state as blue as California.

  16. Ryan B 3 months ago3 months ago

    The big districts that lost the most students remained closed to in person for over a year and are holding onto mask and vaxx mandates the longest. This has everything to do with left wing politics in CA and the strong teachers unions control over school boards, nothing is supported by pandemic science. Kids and families are being used as pawns for more money and huge pensions that don't make any fiscal sense. CA public … Read More

    The big districts that lost the most students remained closed to in person for over a year and are holding onto mask and vaxx mandates the longest. This has everything to do with left wing politics in CA and the strong teachers unions control over school boards, nothing is supported by pandemic science. Kids and families are being used as pawns for more money and huge pensions that don’t make any fiscal sense. CA public education is a mess because it is run by greedy unionists, politicians, and journalists no longer speak the truth to keep those forces in check. Shame.

  17. Brooke 3 months ago3 months ago

    Interesting that your article didn’t comment on the large numbers of people who are refusing to send their children to public schools while this state is mandating masks and talking about vaccine requirements. It also didn’t accurately touch on the large numbers of families leaving this state because of the way it’s being run. If you’re going to talk about the decline in students you should touch on all reasons.

  18. Herb 3 months ago3 months ago

    If SB 871, which requires Covid vaccination for in-person schooling, passes, watch enrollment drop another 10% to 20% if not more. We will homeschool if this passes, make no mistake. We are not alone.

  19. Patti 3 months ago3 months ago

    Political influence of far left and poor performance is driving people to pull out their kids and families to pullout of California all together. DOE needs to understand this lesson in democracy!

  20. Christy Fisher 3 months ago3 months ago

    Maybe parents don’t want their kids wearing masks, testing, or have to get the COVID vaccine in order to attend school. Our five children will be pulled from the school system if the COVID vaccine becomes a requirement in order to attend school. There is not enough supporting data on the long term effects it may have and is too new. I also know many families have left CA, including some of our closer … Read More

    Maybe parents don’t want their kids wearing masks, testing, or have to get the COVID vaccine in order to attend school. Our five children will be pulled from the school system if the COVID vaccine becomes a requirement in order to attend school.

    There is not enough supporting data on the long term effects it may have and is too new. I also know many families have left CA, including some of our closer friends and neighbors, due to the high cost of living and the governor.