Credit: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times/Polaris
LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Where have all the students gone?

California’s K-12 enrollment decline of more than 270,000 students since the pandemic began is largely attributable to people leaving the state, not enrolling children in transitional kindergarten or kindergarten, or deciding to home-school their children but failing to file the paperwork to account for them, the head of the state’s largest school district and other experts said Sunday. 

“In Los Angeles, in a very, very obvious and evident way, the greatest loss was in (transitional) kindergarten and kindergarten students,” LA Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told a gathering of education journalists.  “You have to really accept that parents made a decision, ‘I’m not going to send my kid to pre-k or kindergarten.'”

Regardless of where the students ended up, their learning has been harmed, Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee said. Dee’s research described how the youngest students were most affected by not returning to school following Covid. His work was highlighted in a collaboration report that included EdSource, The New York Times and Big Local News, a data journalism project at Stanford.

“Enrollment data shows a disruption that students are experiencing, and those disruptions matter because research literature shows switching schools, particularly in a reactive manner, impacts development,” Dee said.

And “missing out on early childhood educational experiences can be really consequential,” Dee added.

Across California, the number of students enrolled in the public school system dropped below 6 million this year for the first time in two decades. As districts navigated the sudden shift to virtual learning amid the pandemic, declines steepened as many families faced extra barriers, considered alternatives to the public school system or chose to delay enrollment for their youngest learners.

The enrollment declines, both in California and nationally, are going to lead to fiscal impacts and school closures in the years ahead, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“You’re going to have to sell buildings when they become empty. You’re going to have to exit staff because you won’t need the number of teachers that you have,” Domenech said. “Parents didn’t want their children in school because they were afraid.”

But, he added, the impact of the pandemic on students is profound.

“The whole virtual learning experience was a fiasco because school districts were not prepared for virtual learning,” Domenech said. Nationally, there’s “a pulling away of students from the public school system because of the impact of Covid.” But he said it’s unclear how many of the students will return. 

The three men spoke Sunday afternoon at the national conference of the Education Writers Association in Orlando, Florida.

In Los Angeles, enrollment has been steadily declining for two decades. The district has 58% of the student population it had at its peak in the early 2000s, now at 430,000 students.

But data shows those students did not migrate in large numbers to private and charter schools, the superintendent said. Charter schools in the district also had an enrollment decline of about 2% during the pandemic, he said.

LAUSD’s enrollment decline has only increased since the pandemic hit. The district lost “9,000 kindergartners when the pandemic hit,” Carvalho said. “That’s a huge, a huge number.”

The district has hired people to go into neighborhoods to try to track down missing students and interview their parents, he said, describing a massive push in which he and other top administrators have joined others to try to keep track of 30 children each.

In some cases, he said, district workers have found that undocumented families left the country during the pandemic “because there was no opportunity to work. The kids left with the families. And they left by the thousands.”

In other instances, he added, families left California for other states such as Florida “because of political ideology and lower taxes. If they had the means, parents made decisions.”

They went to another state where “their child could go to a school that was more aligned with their own beliefs in terms of medicine and in terms of schooling.”

Perhaps the biggest problem in figuring out the decline student by student is the lag in parents letting the district officially know they have decided to home-school their children by filing an affidavit with school officials. 

“Parents are taking their time to file the documents,” he said.

Statewide, during the height of the pandemic, a record 35,000 families had filed an affidavit with the state to open a private home school, but the numbers dropped the following year, according to California Department of Education records. That level is still much higher than the 15,000 affidavits filed in the years prior to the pandemic.

According to LAUSD’s enrollment analysis conducted as a part of Carvalho’s 100-day plan that launched when he became superintendent in February, LAUSD has seen the most significant declines by grade at the elementary school level and the most significant declines geographically among west and central local districts over the last six years.

The district has also noticed that the largest drops have been among middle-class families, but that analysis does not take into account the students who left to attend the City of Angeles virtual school during the pandemic.

LAUSD doesn’t consider private schools a large factor in its enrollment decline because local private school enrollment has also been on the decline for the past few years, dropping more than 6% since 2017. Reflective of the national trend, homeschooling in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan statistical area doubled to 8% in 2020.

EdSource reporters Kate Sequeira and Diana Lambert contributed to this report.

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  1. John 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    How is LAUSD performing with the ELL population (exit rate into proficiency), Special Ed, and math scores…

  2. Tami Cohen 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    You say “after the pandemic.” Covid isn’t over for your information. It is worse than it was in March 2020. My kids haven’t been back to school since. They have been doing online school and have not fallen behind the kids who went back to school during Covid. Can you please tell me where you saw or heard that Covid is over? I’d really like to know.

  3. Michal estrela 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Here he is acting like homeschool is akin to abuse. Parents are sick and tired of their kids being monetized by the state is all.

  4. Penny 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    He references a lag in parents filing the affidavit. This affidavit is filed with the State Dept. of Education in October each year per CA Education Code 33190. If that is too much of a delay for Supt. Carvahlo, then he should work with the CDE to get the law changed, not pass the blame onto homeschool parents.

  5. Tiffany 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    This superintendent is advertising his likeness all over LAUSD website. He probably has ambitions for bigger political positions. He mandated LAUSD employees to return to the office. Covid cases are running rampant, I know because I receive the emails about outbreaks. He has scolded departments for low office attendance at Beaudry, dumb because those departments have field oriented hobs. He is walking through departments and making people take down their … Read More

    This superintendent is advertising his likeness all over LAUSD website. He probably has ambitions for bigger political positions. He mandated LAUSD employees to return to the office. Covid cases are running rampant, I know because I receive the emails about outbreaks. He has scolded departments for low office attendance at Beaudry, dumb because those departments have field oriented hobs. He is walking through departments and making people take down their office decor because he says it’s unprofessional.. moral at Beaudry is low.

  6. ThomYorke 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Homeschooled all three of ours through high school. All productive, self-sufficient, highly educated members of society.

  7. Jim 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Parents want schools that prioritize their children. If a school says we are going to center under represented groups then parents of children who don’t meet that criteria will look around for another option. There has been many studies that look at where LAPD officers live. It would be very interesting to see where LAUSD teachers and other staff send their children.

  8. Carolyn Forte 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Apparently, Superintendent Carvalho doesn’t know that parents don’t file an affidavit with local “school officials” when they start to homeschool. They file an affidavit with the California State Department of Education. It would be courteous of them to notify their local school, but they don’t have to.

  9. Jay 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    A valid concern is that parents with means have chosen to relocate their children when political and medical differences are involved. This should serve as a reminder to refrain from allowing political and medical thoughts from dictating educational policy. Otherwise, more families will choose educational alternatives in one year. This is also an equity issue.

  10. Alison 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    These numbers will continue to decline if school districts continue to aggressively push indoctrination programming rather than education in reading, writing and math. Drop the critical race theory and abominable sex education, let parents decide whether or not to mask their children and don’t delude yourself into thinking districts can mandate medical procedures and parents won’t push back.

    Replies

    • Daniel 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      Right, Alison, because learning the true history of the USA is bad for children. You know instead of masking and hiding the true history of this land in order to not repeat it is the worst thing for children. God forbid a child actually learned what his ancestors really did when they came here, huh? American History should be wiped clean huh?

  11. J D. Ingram 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I am disapointed in this article's lack of data showing that there are multiple factors why school enrollment is declining. For example, 40% of the decline is in kindergarten and pre-k. That can be explain by concerns over Covid. Migration out of major cities and state (CA is #1) due to housing prices is a huge factor in dropping school enrollment. None of these were handled with more than a quote. That left your commenters … Read More

    I am disapointed in this article’s lack of data showing that there are multiple factors why school enrollment is declining. For example, 40% of the decline is in kindergarten and pre-k. That can be explain by concerns over Covid.

    Migration out of major cities and state (CA is #1) due to housing prices is a huge factor in dropping school enrollment. None of these were handled with more than a quote. That left your commenters to randomly express their personal (and incorrect) conclusions. Much of the drops in enrollment were also seen in disenfranchised families (lack of access to childcare during Covid and less access to a dependable internet).

    Sadly, people then conclude that public schools are substandard. Did you know that many private schools do not even require a teaching credential? In addition to housing, our problems exist in the areas of safety (Covid, shootings, and bullying) as well as affordable housing, parent involvement with their child’s education, and low funding for special needs students.

    None of those things are being addressed enough for parents, so they blame schools and misinterpret curriculum. Low enrollment is a societal problem. Call your representatives.

  12. Santiago Jackson 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Cost of housing, whether renting or buying, also has to be a contributing factor in the enrollment decline in the Los Angeles district.

  13. Jennifer Krause 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Keep mandating vaccines and masks=- families are going to leave!!

  14. Todd Collins 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Refreshing to see some plain and honest talk about what’s happening in California.

  15. George 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Where I work in a farm and home supply store, the absolute smartest, nicest, most decent, and Christian employee is an 18 year old homeschooled girl. She’s proficient in her job, confident, knows her worth derives from Jesus, and treats people correctly and decently.

  16. Isaac 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    The federal government has many laws against monopolies because of the great harm they cause. Yet in the one area where a monopoly can do the greatest damage, by jeopardizing our future -- ie, education -- the government itself holds a monopoly. This is the definition of hypocrisy. We're losing America because we lost the educational system to the Frankfurt School and similar leftist cabals. The only way we can rescue … Read More

    The federal government has many laws against monopolies because of the great harm they cause. Yet in the one area where a monopoly can do the greatest damage, by jeopardizing our future — ie, education — the government itself holds a monopoly. This is the definition of hypocrisy.

    We’re losing America because we lost the educational system to the Frankfurt School and similar leftist cabals. The only way we can rescue it is through educational freedom. Vouchers are the most potent tool we have in that regard. They have repeatedly been held constitutional and should be available to all.

    Replies

    • Lisa 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

      These monopolies on public schools have to go

  17. AKA 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    The experts (term used lightly) attribute this to Covid? How about the destructive curriculum deemphasizing academics and overemphasizing social ideologies?! Most parents can and will do better.

  18. Cheryl 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Filing an annual private school affidavit is not the only legal way to homeschool in CA. You can also homeschool through a private school satellite program (PSP) or via private instruction by a private tutor. Many leaving public schools don’t wish to share their educational choices with the state and will choose accordingly.

  19. Arty 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I chose to homeschool because my son has an IEP that they are unable to implement. It took me 6 months to get an IEP, then we were waiting another 6 months for them to hire staff in order to be able to implement the IEP ... it's not feasible. It's actually harming the child to have them in the office all day instead of in the classroom learning because the district claims they don't … Read More

    I chose to homeschool because my son has an IEP that they are unable to implement. It took me 6 months to get an IEP, then we were waiting another 6 months for them to hire staff in order to be able to implement the IEP … it’s not feasible. It’s actually harming the child to have them in the office all day instead of in the classroom learning because the district claims they don’t have enough staff to help my son.

    Literally, all he needs is an aide & noise canceling headphones but they are too cheap to provide either. I went to the district to demand services, and the cowards called the cops on me instead of responding to a parent. This is why I’m not sending my son to school. The excuses this new superintendent is giving are not necessarily true.

  20. Anthony Guinan 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    I put the blame squarely on Gavin Newsom