Public school enrollment is declining statewide. Here's how SoCal districts are responding

Last year, students enrolled in public school fell by more than 110,000, the second largest one-year drop in over a decade.

ByLeticia Juarez and Grace Manthey via KABC logo
Friday, August 12, 2022
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Last year, the number of students enrolled in public school dropped by more than 110,000, the second largest one-year decrease in over a decade. Reasons include declining birth rates, migration, as well as shifts to private and home education.

Students across California returned to the classroom this week. But this year there will be fewer children attending public school.

"Declining enrollment isn't anything new, it's been over a decade that it has had an impact on schools and education, and there are very clear reasons. It's not just unique to LA. It's taking place across the state," said Dr. Debra Duardo, the Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the California Department of Finance projected a 7% decrease in California public school enrollment between 2018 and 2028. A report by the Public Policy Institute of California cited lower birth rates and migration from and within the state as reasons for enrollment changes across districts.

More recently, the Department of Finance projected a 9% decline - roughly 542,000 students - in enrollment between 2021 and 2031.

Last year, the number of students enrolled in public school dropped below six million for the first time since at least 2007. That's a loss of more than 110,000 students, the second largest one-year decrease in over a decade. The largest was the previous year's 161,000 student decrease.

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The biggest decreases were a 4.3% drop in 1st grade, and a 5.4% drop in 7th grade. This is consistent with the previous year's largest decreases in kindergarten and 6th grade.

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There were similar trends in Southern California counties.

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Kindergarten enrollment did increase modestly from the previous year, but it was still not up to pre-pandemic levels.

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Private school enrollment in schools with more than five students increased by about 6%, a reversal from most of the last decade when private school enrollment was declining.

Enrollment in private schools with five students or less is a way to measure homeschools, according to officials, since it is one way parents can homeschool their children and the state does not track homeschool students directly.

In these assumed homeschools, enrollment has been on the rise for the last three years. It peaked to about 59,000 during the pandemic and last year was still double most pre-pandemic years.

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These changes might mean it won't be cost effective to keep under-enrolled public schools open, Duardo said.

"So, we are going to see more school closures and that is very challenging in communities," she said.

School closures are already happening in Azusa.

The school district is in the process of reorganizing schools by closing some schools and consolidating others.

Arturo Ortega, Superintendent of Azusa Unified School District, said in the 2023-24 school year, the district will be closing two elementary schools.

"We will be closing Gladstone High School as a high school but it will open as a middle school so that year our middle schools will also close," said Ortega.

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While school districts may have lost students due to concerns about COVID, masking, and distance learning to private schools, they also gained funding.

"This is historic in terms of the funding that has come into education. So, districts are not just looking at the instructional program, but they are also trying to address some of the challenges that families have experienced." said Duardo from L.A. County.

Ortega in Azusa said they will be able to increase the types and amounts of programs they offer to students as well as improve facilities.

By offering more educational opportunities, districts hope it will lessen the blow to communities facing a school closure.