What’s next for Kindergarten to Grade 12 enrollment in California?

For years, the California Department of Finance has released projections anticipating a trend that has only recently emerged: declining enrollment in California K-12 schools. COVID-19 has accelerated this trend, with enrollment dropping nearly 3% between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021, largely due to kindergarten and the early years of elementary school. Statewide enrollment data for 2021-2022 has yet to be released, but there are early indications of persistent declines in some districts. While the long-term trend in enrollment reflects demographic trends, whether or not students who have left for COVID-related reasons will return is an open question and will have important implications for the state’s education system.

Since state funding is tied to student enrollment, the declines can pose a financial challenge for districts. Right now, most districts are well positioned to overcome these challenges, supported by record levels of state funding and federal stimulus. But in the years to come, the state and districts must find ways to prepare for declining enrollments, whether or not the pandemic-induced declines reverse.

Over the next decade, declines are expected to accelerate, with enrollment statewide expected to drop 9% by 2030-2031. The interactive below shows significant variation in past and planned registrations across the state. Most counties are expected to experience a decline in registrations over the next decade, especially in southern California, along the coast and much of the Central Valley. The projected declines are largest in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, about 20% lower by 2030-2031. The declines in Los Angeles County are particularly noticeable: Enrollment in the county has already fallen by more than 10% in the past decade, and enrollments in 2030-2031 are expected to be 30% lower than they were. in 2010-11.

A handful of counties are expected to experience significant growth, primarily in the Sierras and the northern Sacramento Valley. However, most of these counties have relatively few students. For example, Alpine predicts the highest growth percentage (33%) of any county in the state, but only served 73 students in total in 2020-21. El Dorado is the largest county projecting over 10% growth, from around 30,000 to 35,000 students over the next decade.

It is important to keep in mind that these projections are only estimates. In fact, past projections have tended to slightly underestimate the actual declines in recent years (before COVID). And more recent projections have estimated larger declines in the 2020s, even when last year’s enrollment losses due to COVID are factored in. While current projections also end up being underestimated, even larger declines by 2030 are possible. However, if the withdrawals from the public education system linked to the pandemic are completely reversed, the actual declines could be slightly smaller than expected.

Ultimately, trends in key demographic factors such as population growth, birth rates, and migration to and from California will determine the number of children in California’s K-12 education system. Fertility rates have fallen nearly 33% since 1990 in California, and the California Department of Finance projects a further drop of 9% by 2040.

In the short term, education officials must deal with enrollment losses while ensuring that students who did not attend last year return to school this year. Policymakers may want to consider providing a temporary cushion for impending funding cuts in 2022-2023, when the two-year ‘hold back’ period ends and enrollment drops during COVID result in losses. funding for districts. After the difficulties of distance education, sharp budget cuts would only exacerbate the current challenges.

Nonetheless, most districts will have to adjust to a new standard of lower educational attainment. Funding cannot stay higher in perpetuity to fund a level of student enrollment that no longer exists. Districts may need more state assistance to predict, prepare for, and manage these declines. To ensure that student opportunities are not affected, state resources and expertise to support districts will be essential, especially for those that are smaller and have less organizational capacity.

In the longer term, fewer children can be a boon to the state education system – unless there are future cuts to the state budget, declining statewide enrollment would mean higher funding levels per student. But first we need to find ways to effectively manage the costs of the transition to a smaller school system.

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