- John Franco
Missing kindergartners drive largest drop in 20 years in California's K-12 enrollment
Charter schools experienced an increase in enrollment
Karen D'Souza, John Fensterwald, And Daniel J. Willis
April 22, 2021
The pandemic has intensified a multi-year trend of dwindling student enrollment statewide, causing a steep drop this year. More than a third of the decline stemmed from 61,000 missing kindergartners.
Statewide, enrollment in K-12 public schools in California fell by almost 3%, or 160,000, students in 2020-21, according to annual data released Thursday by the California Department of Education. That’s the largest drop of the last 20 years, surpassing a 1% drop between October 2008 and October 2009.
That’s a net loss in students attending publicly funded schools. The last year has also seen an increase of 22,542 students attending publicly funded charter schools, which enroll about one in nine students in California.
There was also a notable dip at the level of 6th grade, with a decline of about 24,000 students. But the loss may not be as severe as it appears since this year’s 6th grade class is smaller than other years. The drop from last year’s 5th grade to this year’s 6th grade was 7,000.
The falling numbers were spread across the state, with the four largest school districts accounting for about a sixth of the decline in enrollment. Los Angeles Unified School District enrollment fell by 20,841 (4.76%); Long Beach by 2,003 (2.8%), San Diego by 4,270 (4.2%) and Fresno 909 (1.3%). In the Bay Area, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties all lost more than 3% and Marin fell by 4.7%.
Digging into the demographics
Enrollment fell in all ethnic and racial groups this year, but white students had the largest numerical decline — 77,000 — and second biggest percentage drop: 5.6%. Only the loss of Native American students — 6.6%, due to a drop from 30,282 to 28,331 students — was larger.
The number of African American students has fallen yearly since 2014-15. But the drop from 325,000 to 310,000 – 4.5% — was significant for one year.
Even though Latino enrollment fell by 61,000 students to 3.3 million, Latinos now comprise 55.3% of the state’s students, up 0.4%, which is a record proportion.
Overall, there are more seniors this year than in any year since 2015-16. That could reflect an increase in fifth year seniors who had trouble completing credits last spring after their schools rushed into distance learning, and they decided to return in order to graduate.
There are some big variations among the state’s 2,291 districts and charter schools. Excluding county offices of education, 83% of traditional districts saw a decline in overall enrollment compared with only 48% of charter schools.
Most growth occurred outside of urban areas. Kern Union High School District, the state’s largest high school district with 41,854 students, grew 3%. Other districts where enrollment increased include Placer Union High School District, outside of Sacramento; Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County and Dublin Unified, in Alameda County.
When it comes to kindergarten, however, the declines were more universal, a shift many experts expected. Across the state, more than four out of five districts with kindergartners saw a decline in kindergarten enrollment, and nearly 60% of charter schools that offer kindergarten also saw a decrease in kindergartners.
Causes for the slide in enrollment are myriad, complicated by existing trends including declining birthrates and people’s continued exodus from the state, as well as the sudden economic chaos wrought by the pandemic.
Confronted with the struggles of remote learning, including requiring a 5-year-old to sit still in front of a computer for hours daily while simultaneously balancing work and toddlers, some kindergarten parents simply kept their children in preschool, which offered the in-person interaction that young children need. Some parents also opted to send children to private schools, many of which resumed in-person instruction far more quickly.
Parents of about 20,000 students filed private school affidavits in 2020, bringing the total annual enrollment to about 517,000 students. The majority of these pupils shifted to homeschooling, state data show.