What to Make of the Small Jump in Delaware Public School Enrollment
As students head back to school, enrollment numbers and Delaware’s “unit count” begin to come into focus. Last year, we blogged about how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enrollment in Delaware, and pointed out that in the 2020-21 school year, the state saw its first decline in public school enrollment in a decade—particularly in kindergarten and offset by increases in private and home school enrollment.
Enrollment is tied to essential budgeting decisions and policy considerations, so this decline was significant and concerning to policymakers and educators alike. In last year’s analysis, we saw that public district school enrollment declined, but public charter and non-public school enrollment increased, reversing trends we had seen prior. However, from 2020-21 to 2021-22, public school enrollment began to bounce back from the COVID hit, falling back into the pre-pandemic trend of enrollment increases.
Nationally, K-12 enrollment continues to decline. In the 2020-21 school year, the nationwide drop was roughly three percent. This overall decline continued into the 2021-22 school year.
There are nuances to this decline however, especially when you consider nationwide increases in pre-K and kindergarten enrollment. More detailed reports nationally from the 2021-22 school year are lacking, but experts are predicting a decline in enrollment for the next 10 years nationwide and are urging schools to consider their finances.
This decline can be linked to various factors, including parents choosing to enroll their students in non-public schools, a preference for virtual learning, schools’ COVID-related precautionary measures, but the most often cited reason is the “COVID baby bust” and the choice young adults are making to put off having children, or to not have children at all.
Delaware’s Numbers Heading into the 2022-23 School Year
The 2020-21 school year saw the first decline in enrollment in a decade in Delaware, a 1.7 percent decline. Typical annual increases pre-COVID were between 0.5 percent and 1.5 percent.
In 2021-22, when schools were transitioning back to fully in-person learning, enrollment rose, but remains roughly 2.5 percent behind where it would have been had pre-COVID trends continued.
Overall enrollment in the 2021-22 school year increased 1.35 percent over the 2020-21 school year, falling in line with the average increases year over year pre-COVID. As was seen in the national trends, kindergarten enrollment saw a drastic increase as well, roughly six percent over the prior year, putting kindergarten enrollment back at pre- COVID levels.
Why It Matters
- Enrollment and Funding: Enrollment directly affects the funding schools receive for the year. State funding for schools is driven by a count of student attendance in the fall, typically ending around September 30th each year. The state then uses this count to fund schools for the following year – and districts and charters use it to determine how many educators they can hire, which has been a challenge recently. Last year’s decrease in numbers was concerning for schools and their potential funding, but the increase this year could lift that pressure a little bit. This past legislative session also saw funding added for a mid-year unit count, allowing any additional students who enroll beyond that September 30th cut-off, but before January 30th , to be counted.
- Enrollment vs Attendance: While enrollment has increased, the question of how many students are actually attending is more difficult to count. The definition of “attendance” has been difficult to pin down throughout the pandemic. One measure is “chronic absenteeism” which is defined by the U.S. Department of Education as “students who have missed more than 15 days of school for any reason during one school year.”
Chronic absenteeism pre-pandemic (2018-19 school year) was the lowest it had been in the prior five years, at 13.24 percent, however, during the first two years of the pandemic, it increased significantly. The 2019-20 school year recorded an average of 15.68 percent of students chronically absent, and the 2020-21 school year had an average of 20.31 percent of students chronically absent.
It’s important to consider the various reasons why students may become chronically absent, and the various barriers and crises families faced due to the pandemic. These crises include: housing insecurity, mental health crises, internet access, technology access and other economic hardships. These barriers disproportionately affect minority students and students from low-income backgrounds.
- Delaware in the national context: Delaware is experiencing the opposite of the national trend of decreasing enrollment. The University of Delaware’s CADSR research center predicts growing enrollment continuing through 2040 in the state of Delaware. Still, we’d be wise to watch the predictive factors that may impact enrollment in the future, including birth rates and parent choices to enroll their students in homeschool or other non-public options, and how these factors may affect enrollment—and therefore funding—in the future.
These implications for Delaware’s overall school funding system must be considered in the upcoming assessment (as required by the lawsuit recently settled) as well as when relief funds run out and schools no longer have the funding they have been relying on for several years.