Public schools see steep drop in student enrollment
Biggest decrease in kindergarten, pre-k
MASSACHUSETTS PUBLIC SCHOOLS are seeing a massive drop in enrollment this year, as schools and families struggle to make educational decisions amid a global pandemic. The drop, which could have dire consequences for state education aid allocations to districts next year, is most acute among the youngest children – those in pre-kindergarten or kindergarten. But many older students are also leaving public schools, either to attend private school or for homeschooling.
According to statistics released by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, enrollment in public schools dropped by 3.9 percent this year, or approximately 37,400 students – from 948,800 students last year to 911,400 this year. That compares to enrollment drops of around one-quarter of one percent each of the last two years.
Nearly half the decrease comes from pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, with 9,400 fewer students attending public pre-k and 7,700 fewer students attending public kindergarten – a drop of 17.9 percent in enrollment across those two categories.
For those older students who left public school, many are shifting to private school or homeschooling. There are more than 13,100 students enrolled in Massachusetts private schools this year, compared to 7,300 last year. There are nearly 7,200 homeschoolers – up from just over 800 each of the last three years.
Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston of the education department, who presented the statistics at a meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said students who are not attending public schools and do not show up in the transfer statistics may have left the state, or their enrollment may be in flux as they move between districts.
Johnston said a district-by-district analysis has not yet been done, so it is not clear yet what the demographics are of students who left or what format of learning their school district is offering. Based on numbers posted on the DESE website, Boston saw a 4.7 percent enrollment drop, Worcester a 4.2 percent drop, and Springfield a 3.1 percent drop.
Among the younger students, in kindergarten and pre-k, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said, “We expect parents opted to keep kids home for the year rather than start in the system.”
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said some parents are likely keeping their kids in private preschools, even if they otherwise would have switched them to public kindergarten. Some are keeping children home. Scott said he has heard anecdotally that parents’ decisions relate in large part to some public school districts keeping even their youngest children remote.
Some families also likely have health concerns for their children, and Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said, “I think there may be families who think that [kindergarten] isn’t the necessary part of school.”
Compulsory education in the state does not begin until age six – first grade for most students.
For older students, many think public schools’ moves toward hybrid and remote learning led to the drop. Scott said the major reason he is hearing about parents leaving a district is they wanted in-person learning – for their kids’ educational benefit or because parents had to work.
Quadrozzi ended up enrolling her daughter in the public school’s hybrid option. But, she said, many of her peers sent their children to private school this year. “What they’d been finding is the isolation for kids was just too much,” she said.
Thomas Carroll, superintendent of the Boston archdiocese schools, said Catholic schools are among those that benefited from an enrollment influx.
Before the pandemic hit, there were around 32,500 students attending the 100 Catholic schools overseen by the Boston archdiocese. By early summer, as the economy cratered, there was a 5,700-student enrollment drop, due to the closure of 11 schools and parents losing income and being unable to pay tuition. But mid-July, when the state’s major teachers’ unions announced a push for a late opening and remote learning, Carroll said, “phones…started ringing off the hook and didn’t stop until the end of October.”
All but two of the archdiocese’s schools have been meeting in-person. Since mid-July, Boston area Catholic schools picked up 4,400 students – around 80 percent of whom came from public schools. Around two dozen schools that had been slated for potential closures were taken off the closure list. While that is still fewer students than pre-pandemic, Carroll said enrollment in Catholic schools has been declining for years, and the drop is far less than what would have been expected in a recession.
At the 15 Catholic schools in the Springfield archdiocese, where enrollment had been consistently declining by 2 to 3 percent a year, enrollment is up by 35 students this year. Four schools have waiting lists but do not have space to admit more students because of social distancing requirements. The schools all opened with full in-person instruction. “What we’ve seen is a lot of people are looking for in-person instruction,” said superintendent Daniel Baillargeon.
In a recent statewide poll of parents by the MassINC Polling Group, which has the same parent company as CommonWealth, 13 percent of respondents said their children were enrolled in a different school than they would otherwise be in this year, due to COVID-19. Those respondents were more likely to have children homeschooling, in a pod, in a Catholic school, and in in-person education – not in a public school or a remote setting.
In considering their options for this year, the poll found that health and safety was the top factor parents mentioned. Private and Catholic school parents were more likely to be concerned with “academic and learning opportunities.” Public school parents were more likely to have weighed most heavily “what the district offered.” Maeve Duggan, research director with the MassINC Polling Group, said that could indicate that some public school parents did not have financial options to leave their district.
Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at the Education Trust, which advocates for poor students and students of color, said a preliminary look at the data found that the enrollment decrease was greatest among white students. “Considering the overlap between race and income in Massachusetts, it’s possible that for wealthier white families…It’s easier for them to shift to other options like private schools or even pulling kids out to homeschool them,” she said.
The state statistics do show that both the number and percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the public school system have increased this year, by around 22,000 students, from 32.8 percent of all students to 36.6 percent. Ushomirsky said that could be because some wealthier students are leaving public schools, but also because more students qualify as economically disadvantaged as their parents lose work.The numbers raise myriad policy implications. Ushomirsky said if more students are low-income, school districts need to provide more services. “This is not just about how instruction is provided, it’s also about what additional supports families are being connected to,” she said.
Enrollment figures, which are collected October 1, are also used in crafting the following year’s budget for the funding formula that determines how much state money each district receives. Scott said it will be important for lawmakers to acknowledge in setting funding levels that the enrollment drops are likely to be temporary, and many of those students will return next year.