‘Those Kids Did Not Come Back’: Exclusive Enrollment Data Shows Students Continue to Flee Urban Districts as Boom Town Schools and Virtual Academies Thrive

By Linda Jacobson | April 6, 2022

The fallout from lost students is likely to lead to major layoffs and closures if districts don’t recover by 2024, when federal relief funds dry up. After that? “Armageddon,” one superintendent said.

A year after the nation’s schools experienced a historic decline in enrollment, new data shows that many urban districts are still losing students, and those that rebounded this year typically haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Whether families withdrew to enroll their children in online charters, school them at home or fled to far-flung suburbs with more affordable housing, the pandemic has triggered population shifts that could change the composition of U.S. school districts for years to come.

Data from Burbio, a company that tracks COVID-related education trends, offers the first look at the degree to which states and districts have recovered from a punishing year of lockdown and remote learning. Out of 40 states and the District of Columbia, few have seen more than a 1% increase compared to 2020-21, when some states experienced declines as high as 5%.

Flat enrollment this year “means those kids did not come back,” said Thomas Dee, an education professor at Stanford University. “Parents were making these enrollment decisions last summer. There was still a great deal of uncertainty. Parents wanted stability for their kids.”

Federal data shows that last year’s losses were concentrated in the early grades. Those who opted not to enroll their young children in public schools last year, or found an in-person option somewhere else, might never return for middle or high school, Dee said. 

While enrollment in many of the nation’s urban districts was already shrinking before the pandemic, school closures and economic upheaval forced many families to make decisions they might have put off otherwise.

Barring further pandemic disruptions, student population trends will likely return to their pre-COVID pace, Dee said, but added, “The effects of the sharp, recent enrollment declines may be long-lived. The fiscal consequences will remain for some while.”

New York experienced the sharpest decline, a 2% drop — more than 48,000 students — since last year. That’s on top of the previous year’s 3% decline. Enrollment in Florida saw the biggest bounce at 4%, or more than 111,000 additional students — a reflection of higher birth rates, job growth and fewer COVID restrictions under Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, experts say. 

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, schools in Florida reopened earlier than those in many other states. (Getty Images)

Of the 10 largest districts in the nation, only Florida’s Orange and Hillsborough counties, home to Orlando and Tampa respectively, saw enrollment surpass pre-pandemic figures.

“Florida was continuing to grow when other states came to a plateau,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist from the University of South Florida. “Things were open and you could still work.”

State data offers a glimpse of what will likely be further enrollment growth in Arizona, Florida and Utah — states with more affordable housing, growing tech sectors and outdoor living that became an important draw during COVID. At the same time, fewer people are moving to the Northeast from other states and countries, citing ballooning housing costs and higher taxes

District-level figures — provided exclusively by Burbio to The 74 — offer a richer picture of what happened to students after the pandemic began. The data, combined with state-level reports and interviews with district officials and parents, shows many urban districts lost students to growing exurbs. And some districts with no population growth added thousands of students in virtual schools.

Districts with enrollment loss could face tough decisions about layoffs and school closures in the near future. Meanwhile, smaller districts that are rapidly gaining students are struggling to hire staff and preserve the kind of close-knit environment that drew many parents in the first place.

“The pandemic kind of accelerated some of those pre-existing trends,” said Alex Spurrier, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a think tank. While school closures forced many parents to look for other options, housing and rental prices were also pushing families out of major metro regions. “All you have to do is go to Zillow and see the year-over-year changes,” he said.

In December 2019, Tanner and Miranda McCutchan relocated from northern California to Boise, Idaho — one of 10 metro areas that saw the most growth between 2020 and 2021, according to recent Census data. That leaves two fewer children who will enter California’s schools in the coming years. Miranda stays home with 4-year-old Paige, who attends a Montessori preschool, and 18-month-old Emery, while her husband runs a glass company. 

“We couldn’t afford a house where we lived,” she said. “It was keep renting or move somewhere we could buy a place.”

Miranda and Tanner McCutchan with daughter Paige and son Emery. (Courtesy of the McCutchan family)

The fiscal cliff & ‘Armageddon’

In California, Burbio collected data only from Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego. All three saw declines, due in part to California’s high-priced housing market. With the state’s school-age population expected to keep trending downward over the next decade, district leaders are bracing for a massive hit to their budgets.

The Oakland Unified Public Schools offers a preview of what other districts with declining enrollment and birth rates will soon confront — the painful and unpopular decision to close schools. In February, the district, which saw a 5.6% enrollment decline compared to last year, decided it would close seven schools over the next two years. Four others will merge or reduce grade levels.

Demonstrators rallied outside Roots International Academy during a March 5 protest against the Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close schools. (Getty Images)

In the Granite School District, near Salt Lake City, enrollment fell 2.4%, down to 60,371 this year, even though the state’s overall enrollment is up. 

The district has seen a decline in birth rates and an increase in families fleeing to “cheaper areas to build larger homes within [Salt Lake County],” said Benjamin Horsley, chief of staff for the district, adding officials anticipate “leveling out around 55,000 students.” The district has already closed three schools and expects to shutter 10 to 14 more in the next five to seven years. 

Districts experiencing similar losses should have been making those tough calls before the pandemic, said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University.

“Federal [relief] money is delaying it a year or two, and the fact that state budgets are healthy is delaying it a year or two,” she said about closing schools. Roza advises a network of over 40 urban districts nationwide, the majority of which are shrinking. “Federal money will run out, and enrollment for some of them isn’t isn’t going to come back. These cost factors are going to just slam down on people.”

Los Angeles Unified, for example, saw a 5.9% decline this year and is expected to fall below 400,000 students by fall of 2023. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Monday that he’s not yet considering closing schools, but added that at the end of his first 100 days — in about two more months — he will discuss “technical corrections” and “belt tightening” measures to respond to the loss of students. 

He agrees with Roza about the dangers of the approaching fiscal cliff, and didn’t mince words about what would happen to the district if it didn’t turn enrollment trends around by the time federal relief funds dry up in 2024. “Armageddon,” he said. Then he added, “It’s going to be a hurricane of massive proportions.” 

The student population in the Clark County School District, which includes Las Vegas, began dropping about five years ago. Superintendent Jesus Jara attributes much of the decline to the growth of charter schools. 

“The anti-charter discussion — that was in the ‘90s. They’re not going away,” Jara said. “The discussion is how are we more flexible and how we are more agile for our communities.” 

Despite declining enrollment, the district needs to build and renovate 33 schools to better serve its current population, he said. That includes breaking up some large, 4,000-student high schools to offer more “boutique” and career-focused programs to compete with charters.

The Clark County School District opened Jo Mackey iLead Academy for Digital Sciences, a K-8 magnet school, to compete with charters. (Clark County School District)

‘Has not slowed down’

Districts with falling enrollment are strategizing how to keep the students they have. But accelerated growth comes with its own challenges, Roza said, putting pressure on leaders to act fast, especially if they need to recruit staff amid a nationwide hiring shortage. Schools might be “digging deeper and deeper into applicant pools” and not necessarily choosing the best candidates, she said. 

Santa Rita Elementary School, one of the Liberty Hill Independent School District’s newest schools, opened in 2020. The growing Austin-area district will open another next year. (Liberty Hill Independent School District)

Liberty Hill Independent School District, northwest of Austin, Texas, didn’t lose students during the pandemic. Enrollment, at 5,539 last year, is now over 6,800 — a 23% percent leap. It’s a bedroom community that just got its first H-E-B, a “big box” grocery store, and is conveniently located near a toll road with easy access to Apple’s new complex near Austin. 

During the pandemic, the community “actually saw a 40 percent rise in residential home builds, and it has not slowed down,” said Superintendent Steven Snell. The district has eight schools now and will open a ninth next year. 

Parents value the district’s small-town atmosphere and the sense that educators know their families well, he said — connections that could be hard to maintain as the district adds 1,000 students a year. Meanwhile, the district has raised salaries for substitutes because of shortages, and there’s a scarcity of available bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers.

“When you have a salary that is causing you to live paycheck to paycheck, you’re going to jump ship for a little more money to survive,” Snell said.

Many of the enrollment swings this year reflect the success of online programs in meeting the needs of families for consistency amid the pandemic’s many disruptions.

For some virtual charters, the enrollment spike was temporary. Oklahoma’s Epic One on One, an online program, had 17,106 students in 2019-20. Enrollment roughly doubled last year and is now down to 23,156, according to state data.  

“Many parents decided to enroll their student in Epic once the pandemic hit, but it appears that trend has slowed with this year’s enrollment numbers,” said Carrie Burkhart, a spokeswoman for the Oklahoma Department of Education.

But whether parents are concerned about COVID or found that online school better suits their children, virtual programs remain in high demand. 

South Carolina’s enrollment has increased almost 2%, due in part to “skyrocketing enrollment in virtual charters,” said Ryan Brown, spokesman for the state’s education department.

The student population in the Huntsville Independent School District, about an hour north of Houston, shot up 40% this year because it operates the Texas Online Preparatory School. And in Colorado, Harrison School District 2, near Colorado Springs, began a partnership with The Vanguard School, a virtual program and one of three charter systems affiliated with the district.

“Many might see it as a public school district versus charter battle,” said Harrison Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel. “We believe this makes us stronger and responds to the needs of the community.”

Homeschooling trends

While Burbio data offers an incomplete picture of where lost students have gone, others have been trying to fill in the missing pieces. The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey showed that homeschooling jumped from about 5% of households to over 11% the fall after the pandemic began. By the start of this school year, it had settled back down to about 7%, according to August 2021 data.

Others have left for more established private schools. Michelle Walker, an Oregon mother who became an advocate for school reopening last year, withdrew her daughter from the Canby Public Schools, near Portland. She secured a spot — and financial aid — at a private school for fourth-grader MacKenzie. She also took out a loan and received money from family to help cover tuition.

“I drive 80 miles roundtrip every day to make sure she goes to a good school,” she said. “It would take a lot for me to put her back in public schools.”

The data shows many other parents are following suit. According to Burbio, most districts in Multnomah County, which includes Portland, and nearby Clackamas County have seen enrollment declines this year. 

The Bernalillo Public Schools in New Mexico serves 190 pre-K students at three schools. (Bernalillo Public Schools)

Some district leaders are still hoping to lure back students they’ve lost. The Bernalillo Public Schools, north of Albuquerque, serves families in Pueblo and Hispanic communities, including many in multi-family households concerned about COVID risk. 

The district was the last in the state to lift its mask mandate. Superintendent Matt Montaño said he’s encouraged that enrollment, while still below pre-pandemic figures, has picked up slightly since last year. 

The district’s pre-K program, with 190 students at three schools, earned a five-star rating from the state education department — an accomplishment Montaño hopes will help recruit new students.

“Once we get them in our doors,” he said, “there’s no reason why they should leave us.”

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