California’s public school enrollment continues to decline, consistent with national trends

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Public school enrollment in California has declined for a fifth straight year, according to new state data released this week.

An annual snapshot of fall enrollment from the California Department of Education indicates just over 5.89 million students attended public schools — including charters — at the start of the 2021-22 academic year. That figure represents a drop of 110,283 students from the previous year, or about 1.8 percent.

While noting that California’s declines are consistent with national trends, state education officials said the release “provides yet another data point in the continuing analysis of California’s overall demographic shifts and related pandemic impacts.” 

“These declines began prior to the pandemic and are projected to continue into the future in California,” the CDE said in a news release. “Large urban districts in California account for close to a third of the drop in the current year. Reports published suggest that both Chicago and New York also saw significant declines for the second year of the pandemic.”

In Orange County, which in recent years has seen soaring home prices and declining birth rates, the number of public school students fell to 448,729 in 2021-22 from 456,572 the previous year. That continues a trend that dates back to the 2003-04 school year, when county enrollment hit a high of 515,464.

COVID-19 disruptions play a part

Statewide grade-level trends reveal the largest decreases in grades one, four, seven and nine. Enrollment increases can be found in kindergarten and grade 12.  

Enrollment of African American students declined 3.6 percent, Asian students declined 1.9 percent, Hispanic/Latino students declined 0.9 percent and White students declined 4.9 percent. The student group that identified as two or more races increased by 1.7 percent, while the student group that did not report race increased by 18.3 percent.

“With this data release, we see that the COVID-19 disruptions are playing a large part in negating the steady enrollment gains over the last decade,” the CDE said. 

State officials say they’re focusing on providing outreach to families of students who were chronically absent during the pandemic while working to boost transitional kindergarten and kindergarten enrollment. They’re also targeting the needs of families around transition years and promoting high school pathways and other options to keep students connected.

The latest rates come from data submitted annually by school districts and county offices of education to the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, or CALPADS. Under legislation enacted during the pandemic, school districts will not experience a decline in revenue based on current-year attendance decreases.

For a full breakdown of enrollment, including rates at the county, district and school levels, visit the California Department of Education’s DataQuest website.