MN public school enrollment drops by 17,000 students

The number of students enrolled in Minnesota public schools dropped by two percent this school year while homeschooling and private school enrollment increased, according to data released by the Minnesota Department of Education.

In its yearly fall enrollment report, the MDE noted that homeschool enrollment increased by 10,254 students compared to fall 2019, amounting to a 50 percent increase. Public school enrollment dropped by 17,234 students, or two percent. Private school enrollment increased by 481 students, or 0.7 percent. Kindergarten enrollment in public schools also declined, with 5,888 fewer students registering, or a nine percent drop. Kindergarten enrollment in private schools was up 672 students, or 12 percent. Among older students, public high school enrollment grew by two percent and private high school enrollment declined by four percent.

School closures among many public schools to start the 2020 school year and parent frustration over a distance learning model caused a good number of families to look into alternative learning environments that could meet their children’s needs. Center of the American Experiment also heard from numerous public school parents who were concerned about the lesson content and political ideology they were seeing in their children’s education, causing them to pursue other learning options.

Given that many districts were in the red before the coronavirus, news coverage of public school enrollment declines has focused on the budget implications the declines could have, drawing attention to the one-time $25 million in state funding for public schools over two years included in Gov. Walz’s budget proposal. But should the state send funding to local districts for students they no longer serve?

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said “the enrollment figures show a need to keep funding steady for public schools,” according to the Pioneer Press.

“Now, our schools are potentially facing a huge loss in funding and resources, which will mean schools faced with eliminating learning opportunities and experiences for our students, especially students who need them most,” Ricker said in the news release.

Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers’ union, released a similar statement, noting that the “public schools of Minnesota will not be able to offer the same quality of education to its students next fall if the state Legislature fails to approve additional funding…”

First off, “the same quality of education”? There are reasons families chose to leave their neighborhood public school, one of those being the limitations of a distance learning model provided by a brick-and-mortar school to offer a quality education. And second, even before COVID-19, too many public school students were being left behind despite more education spending year after year. Minnesota is considered a high spending state relative to spending across the country, but our academic achievement doesn’t reflect a good return on investment. In 2019, nearly 45 percent of students assessed statewide were not performing at grade level in math. In reading, nearly 41 percent did not demonstrate proficiency. Other states that spend less per student showed their dollars going further. Mississippi, a state that spends 31 percent less per student and whose student body is made up of nearly 49 percent black students compared to Minnesota’s 10.7 percent, had better academic performance than our state among students of color on 2019 national math and reading assessments. Equally important, Mississippi’s national test scores for black students have been scaling up over the years, compared to Minnesota’s declining scores and inconsistent growth among its black students. Why? Because it matters far more how money is spent versus how much is spent.

Speaking of how money is spent, the second round of federal funding enacted in December 2020 appropriated over $529 million to the Minnesota Department of Education specifically for K-12 school distribution. This money can be used through Sept. 30, 2023 to address learning loss, prepare schools for reopening and testing, and repair and upgrade projects to improve air quality in school buildings, to name a few. Here are the estimated allocations to districts compared to what they received in the first round of federal relief aid.