K-12 enrollment trends: Why are public schools losing students, and which states are seeing enrollment growth?

Public-school enrollment in the United States has been on a downward trend for several years, a decline expected to continue. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has projected a 1.4-million-student drop in public-school enrollment between 2022 and 2029.

Where will these students end up going? A number of factors are driving this decline, including:

  • Declining birth rates: The birth rate in the United States has been declining for decades, and is not projected to recover. This means that fewer children enter the school system overall with each passing year.
  • Increased homeschooling: Homeschooling has achieved a new degree of mainstream acceptance in the past two decades. According to the NCES, the number of homeschooled students in the United States increased by 65% between 2003 and 2019.
  • Diversion to charter schools and private schools: Charter and private schools have also become increasingly popular in recent years, another trend expected to continue. According to the NCES, the number of students enrolled in private schools increased by 4% between 2012 and 2019. The number of students enrolled in charter schools increased by a whopping 70% between 2012 and 2019—as many charter management organizations radically improved their operations and lawmakers opened up new markets to this model.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the prior two phenomena. Some students withdrew from public schools to homeschool during the pandemic, and others enrolled in charter schools or private academies.

On top of these general factors, individual factors have contributed to the K-12 enrollment decline in specific states and school districts. These factors include:

  • Economic factors: Poverty, unemployment, and other factors affecting low-income families make those students more likely to drop out of school.
  • School quality: Students are more likely to stay in school if they are happy with and motivated by the education they are receiving.
  • School safety: Today’s parents are more likely than those in years past to select a school based on their perception of the school’s safety.
  • School choice policies: Policies increasing access to school choice, like charter schools and vouchers, directly impact K-12 enrollment. By giving parents a greater variety of educational options, these policies have led to increased competition between public schools and other types of schools.

Despite the national trend of declining enrollment, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and eighteen further states in the following regions are still seeing increasing enrollment:

  • The Greater Northwest: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska
  • The Southwest: Utah, Nevada, and Arizona
  • The Great Plains: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska
  • The South: Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida

What is driving up enrollment in these states? There is no single answer, and the reason certainly varies from state to state. Some of the most common potential factors that can increase enrollment, and which certainly merit further statistical study, include:

  • Stronger economies: Some of the states listed above have stronger economies than other states. This can attract families, leading to an increase in enrollment.
  • Better schools: Some of the states listed above simply have better schools. This can both attract families and encourage parents to keep their children in public schools.
  • More affordable housing: Affordable housing costs can make it easier for families to move to these states and to maintain the stability that keeps their children in school.
  • High birth rates: Certain states seeing increasing enrollment have relatively high birth rates. Therefore, more children in these states enter the school system each year.

These factors driving enrollment growth are all, of course, relative, and no single set of policies or circumstances explains every state’s growth. But as the realities of US education continue to shift, school leaders would do well to understand the factors driving both enrollment growth and enrollment decline. Only then will they be best equipped to develop effective strategies for their particular markets.