School Enrollment Rates Dipped Largest Amount In Almost 80 Years

Highlighting a plethora of issues, public school enrollment dropped at the highest rate documented since World War II.

By Erika Hanson | Published

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school enrollment

As the 2021-2022 school year comes to an end, there is a dark, looming cloud over public education in America, and it only looks to become more ominous. Knowing that something needs to change, more and more statistics on the failing system continue to make their way into news headlines. The most recent exemplifies how far the trust in public schools has fallen, as school enrollment dropped at the highest rate documented since the 1940s at the onset of the pandemic.

This finding was reported by EdWeek in a recent publication. The data comes from a congressionally-mandated National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report. It tracks school enrollment, demographics, achievement, and family characteristics in public schools across the nation. Providing educators and policymakers with this information, it is meant to give them a better understanding of where public education is headed, and where it has come from. And to likely no one’s surprise, the findings were quite dismal.

From the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, the total number of children attending public schools declined more drastically than it did during World War II. School enrollment for grades including pre-k through 12th grade declined 3%, from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students. Not only was it the largest single-year drop recorded in nearly 80 years, but it also wiped a decade of sustained growth seen in public schools since 2009.

The U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, made note of this finding, all while alleging that it comes as no shock to education leaders who have seen public schools rife with issues since the pandemic wreaked havoc in schools across the nation. Addressing the drop in school enrollment, he made a statement saying it is an “important reminder” of the road ahead to recovery. 

The report didn’t just track school enrollment. Additionally, it highlighted the learning loss that rocked public schools when school closures first hit. Long-term trends detailed 13-year-olds average performances – showing a decade of progress reversal as well. These students performed worse across the board in reading and mathematics than 13-year-olds did in 2012. Likewise, it was the first year to show such reversals in academics.

Possibly highlighting another large problem in public schools, the report showed the most drastic drops in school enrollment consisted in early-childhood education. During the fall of 2020, only 40% of all 3-and 4-year-olds were enrolled in the public school system. This was a whopping 14% point drop from the nearly 54% of children in this age group that attended public school pre-k programs the year before. Additionally, 5-year-olds enrolled in public school schools dropped down by 7%.

school enrollment

The results are in, and there is no denying that families are seeing a growing, negative trend in public schools. All of this has led to school enrollment losses, which in turn caused a plethora of issues such as budget cuts for schools. As the secretary of education made note, there is no quick fix to the growing issue, and the road to recovery is likely to be a long, arduous road.