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7 Stats for Districts to Rethink Public School Enrollment
Connor Gleason

Declining public school enrollment isn’t a single issue, and it won’t be solved with a simple fix. There are multiple reasons why fewer students are enrolling, but understanding the politics, demographics, and shifting preferences can help us figure out what needs to change—and what your district can do.

First off, years later, K-12 education is still recovering from the pandemic. Paired with more options for school choice, the sudden and dramatic shifts made many parents and students alike rethink their options for education.

Some families found that homeschooling or online schools worked better for them. In contrast, others moved to private or charter schools that were quicker to reopen for in-person learning or offered more flexible full-time options during the pandemic.

Then, there are families' changing wants and needs. Some parents may be looking for smaller class sizes, specific types of programs, or a particular approach to learning that will better suit their child.

We also can't ignore the larger-picture issues facing our communities and country, such as declining birth rates or the impact of where families choose to live.

Looking ahead, public schools will have to get creative and think strategically about how they can bring more students back to public schools and retain them. It will take a mix of listening to what families want, communicating the value of your district’s offerings, and adapting to the changes around us.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. As you’ll see, public schools can continue to be a vital part of every community and offer education that prepares students for the future while meeting their diverse needs.

Let’s examine some recent enrollment numbers, the reasons behind the data, and how districts can respond.

1. Nationwide Enrollment Declines

The U.S. witnessed a significant drop in school enrollment by 2.9 million from 2019 to 2020, with the percentage of children aged 3 and 4 enrolled in schools falling notably. Furthermore, the U.S. public school system has seen about a 2.6% drop in enrollment since the 2020 school year.

This downturn represents the lowest enrollment level among the under-35 population in over 20 years.

2. Population Declines

Marriage rates have been steadily declining, and unmarried adults are less likely to have children. Millennials are also less likely to own homes nowadays, which has dissuaded many couples from starting families. Fewer kids mean fewer students... Although there was a tiny uptick in births after the pandemic, the national birth rate dropped by nearly 23% between 2007 and 2022.

3. The Pandemic’s Effect on Enrollment

The immediate effects of COVID-19 led to school closures and a swift pivot to online learning. While the pandemic is officially over, it affected schools differently and left lasting marks on public education.

As of the 2022-23 school year, traditional public school enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels, and it has only partially recovered from losses during the pandemic. Charter schools and virtual schools, however, saw growth.

Charter enrollment grew by 1.5-2x annually between school years 2020-2022 compared to the previous decade. Virtual and private schools also saw increases in enrollment, pointing toward families' preferences for different educational settings during and following the pandemic.

4. State-specific Enrollment

More than 85% of states saw enrollment declines between the 2020-2022 school years, with Oregon, New York, Kentucky, and Mississippi facing the most significant drops of more than five percent.

Migration also had localized impacts on enrollment. As more families relocated from the Northeast to the South and West and from urban to suburban and rural areas, many regional populations declined, particularly in major cities like New York City.

Public schools in urban and high-poverty areas, as well as rural and high schools, have faced more significant enrollment declines.

5. Elementary Grades are Suffering

Elementary grades experienced the most significant decline in student enrollment among the various school levels. Pre-K, in particular, saw the steepest drop of 11%, which outpaced demographic shifts.

With fewer students enrolled in lower grade levels, building the foundation for a “lifelong love of learning” may be difficult for many districts.

6. Parents' Motivations for Change—and More Options For Education

With the growth of charters and the popularity of private schools (plus the option for homeschooling), families are exploring options that will help them meet their children’s learning styles or offer quicker solutions to changing circumstances.

There’s been a significant shift toward charter and private schools in recent years. Thirty-five percent of private schools reported an increase in enrollment, and this trend continued into the 2021-2022 school year, with 55% of private schools reporting increases.

Charter schools also diverted more students from public schools, which was notable in New York City and states like Alabama and Oklahoma, where charter enrollment saw substantial increases.​

Homeschooling also saw a boost during the pandemic, with more than 2.5 million children switching from traditional schools to homeschooling, raising the total to about 11% of U.S. households, with some states having a higher percentage of homeschooled children.

Parents have also been seeking alternatives to public schooling:

  • Virtual learning allowed parents to oversee online classrooms during the pandemic, and many were dissatisfied.
  • Concerns over student safety and bullying have led families to want more options for personalized learning experiences. One study found that "safety" was the issue behind more than a third of parents choosing to homeschool their children.
  • Mask mandates and opinions about critical race theory may not have aligned with every family's needs or beliefs, pushing many toward private schools or homeschooling.

7. Expected Enrollment Declines

A few of these factors are expected to continue impacting the school system for years. Even with some recovery predicted in birth rates, the effects of prior declines will be felt until 2037 based on some accounts, which means maintaining or hopefully improving enrollment levels could be a challenge for districts for the foreseeable future.​ 

How Can Schools Improve District Enrollment?

The pandemic's effects, changing family preferences, and broader demographic trends all highlight the complexity of declining enrollment in public schools. Some issues may be a short-term trend, but their impact on public school districts will likely require a strategic shift to address the changes in preferences and the needs of their communities.

That said, districts need to find new, proactive ways to market and communicate their value to parents and families, including:

Embracing Digital Marketing

Develop compelling digital marketing and PPC ad campaigns that highlight public schools' unique offerings, successes, and community impact. Showcase student and teacher stories, as well as academic achievements and successes, with social media, your district website, and local online communities.

Kyrene School District ad and laptop mockup

Kyrene School District, a leading school system in Arizona, engages new audiences with ads on social media showcasing its preschool programs and opportunities for prospective students and faculty alike.

Strengthening Your Brand and Online Presence

Invest in a cohesive brand identity that reflects your district's values and strengths. Make your website user-friendly, informative, and engaging for current and prospective families. Always keep the site updated with the latest news, events, and valuable resources for parents and students.

Highlighting Unique Programs, Small Class Sizes, or Flexible Learning Options

If your district offers special programs (STEM, arts, language immersion, etc.) or maintains smaller class sizes, make sure these features are prominent in all communications.

27J schools homepage

27J Schools leans into its differentiators as reasons to celebrate its district, and as pointed out on its website, as neighboring school districts struggle with shrinking enrollment, its district continues to grow.

Streamlining the Enrollment Process

As school choice expands across the United States, it becomes more important for districts to tap into enrollment data and streamline the enrollment process to make it easier for families to express interest, engage, and ultimately enroll. Backed by an easy-to-use enrollment management system, districts can access critical admissions and enrollment data to better predict future enrollment and respond as necessary.

 Eanes Independent School District on a laptop mockup

Eanes Independent School District has taken exciting steps to update its enrollment process for transfer students and those interested in its Spanish immersion programs using Finalsite Enrollment.

With nearly 8,000 students across 10 schools, the site and its enrollment pages provide a platform for transitioning families. They feature a newcomer's guide, school event updates, academic calendars, and information on after-school care programs, ensuring a smooth integration into the school community.

Engage with the Community

Create strong relationships with local businesses, organizations, and families through community events, partnerships, and open houses. Engaging the community can help improve the public perception of district schools and encourage local support and, eventually, enrollment.

Key Takeaway

Numbers don't lie, and public schools will have to get creative and think strategically about how they can bring more students back to public schools—and retain them. But by taking an approach that combines improving visibility and communication, public school districts can better position themselves to attract and retain families in an increasingly competitive landscape.

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Connor Gleason Headshot


Connor has spent the last decade within the field of marketing and communications, working with independent schools and colleges throughout New England. As Finalsite’s Senior Content Marketing Manager, Connor plans and executes marketing strategies and digital content across the web. A former photojournalist, he has a passion for digital media, storytelling, coffee, and creating content that connects.

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