Many School Districts Lost at Least 20% of Students During Pandemic

Many district schools lost at least 20% of students during the pandemic

A new analysis of national enrollment data, prepared by researchers at the Brookings Institution and augmented by reporting from The 74, offers the most detailed look to date at how the declining public school enrollment crisis is playing out at the school level, as well as the districts that face — or will soon face — tough decisions about closures and cuts. 

Brookings researchers found that over a four-year period that includes the pandemic, about 12% of elementary schools and 9% of middle schools lost at least one-fifth of their enrollment. At The 74’s request, they expanded that data to include all 4,428 schools in the country that reached or exceeded a 20% decline.

Among districts with over 50,000 students, those with the greatest share of schools that declined by 20% or more are concentrated in the South. They include Memphis-Shelby County schools in Tennessee, the DeKalb County schools near Atlanta and several in Texas. Other large and mid-size districts topping the list include Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Albuquerque and the Granite School District near Salt Lake City.

A shorter student roster each year might not make headlines, but it could serve as a harbinger of things to come. Administrators in shrinking schools often must merge classrooms, eliminate jobs or search for grants to save popular sports or music programs.

Many of the those facing such pressures are clustered in some of the nation’s largest districts, among them:

  • Clark County, Nevada, where 33 of its more than 300 schools, most of them elementary, saw a 20% loss between 2019 and 2021. Further declines last school year translated to a reduction in state funds. 
  • Tucson, Arizona, where 15% of its 82 schools lost a fifth or more of their students. Officials say the state’s robust school choice climate is a contributing factor. 
  • Kansas City, Missouri, which closed two elementary schools last school year, one of which saw at least a 20% drop in enrollment after the pandemic. Five more schools have seen similar declines.

Because of its size, California has the most schools where enrollment loss hit at least 20% during the pandemic — over 1,400. High-priced areas like Silicon Valley reflect a host of recent demographic trends, including lower birth rates and a limited housing market. Other families left districts during school closures for charter schools and home schooling. 

All of these factors add up to fewer school-aged children attending traditional public schools.

Many districts with declining enrollment have been able to delay closures by relying on federal relief funds to offset the loss in state funding. Some states have also used that money to lure back students who stopped attending during the pandemic.

Research shows that high-poverty, minority neighborhoods like those in Jackson are more affected by enrollment losses — and eventual school closures  — than those in middle-class communities. Brookings research found that enrollment was more likely to bounce back at schools serving well-off families, while the numbers continued to drop at those with higher poverty. 

The 74

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