Public school exodus sustained following pandemic

A new report by Stanford economist Thomas Dee confirms that the exodus of 1.2 million plus students from district schools during COVID-19 was sustained throughout the 2021-2022 school year. The public school flight was especially evident in areas where classrooms were closed the longest.

In the 2021-2022 school year, private school enrollment nationwide increased four percent and was particularly large in kindergarten and early elementary grades. The growth in homeschool enrollment was even higher at 30 percent. According to Dee, increased private school enrollment accounted for around 14 percent of the decline in public school enrollment and increased homeschooling for 26 percent. “For every one-student increase in private schooling during the pandemic, homeschooling increased by nearly two students,” notes Dee.

While the increase in homeschooling (and private schooling, to a lesser extent) was one of the primary explanations for the national public school exodus, according to Dee, the other was the decrease in the school-age population.

In the U.S., the school-age population fell by more than 250,000 individuals (e.g., attributable to lower birth rates) during the pandemic. Such demographic change “suggests that some of the enrollment loss public schools experienced is likely to endure,” continues Dee.

But another implication worth drawing attention to is the enrollment loss that can’t be attributed to increased nonpublic school enrollment and demographic changes. Dee’s research estimates that over 240,000 students in 21 states and the District of Columbia who left public schools didn’t move out of state and didn’t enroll in a private school or home school. Where did these thousands of kids go?

Minnesota public school enrollment drops for third consecutive year

For Minnesota, the state’s public schools lost 19,380 K-12 students from 2019-20 to 2021-2022, according to Dee’s report. Private schools gained 4,314 students during this same period, with homeschool enrollment growing by 7,100 students. The change in school-age population was just under a loss of 3,000 (2,938). That leaves 5,028 former public school students who are unaccounted for in the data.

Recently released data by the Minnesota Department of Education reveal the public school enrollment decline continued for the 2022-23 school year, marking the third consecutive year the state’s public school system has lost thousands of students. Combined with the data in Dee’s report, that’s nearly 22,000 students (21,807) since the 2019-20 school year. Private school enrollment experienced another year of enrollment growth (3.4 percent) compared to 2021-22 while homeschool enrollment decreased five percent.

Percentage Change in K-12 Public School Enrollment, by State, 2019-20 to 2021-22

Source: “Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographic Change During the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools,” Thomas Dee

Percentage Change in the School-Age Population, by State, April 2020 to July 2021

Source: “Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographic Change During the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools,” Thomas Dee