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Blog Post · June 5, 2024

A Closer Look at Enrollment Changes in California’s Public Schools

This post is first in a series on 2023–24 enrollment in California’s public TK–12 system. Stay tuned for posts on enrollment trends among English Learners and across California’s regions.

photo - Teacher Working with Two Students at Table with Counting Blocks

Recently released data for the 2023–24 school year show that public TK–12 enrollment fell by nearly 15,000 students, roughly a quarter of a percent—it was the seventh straight year of statewide enrollment declines. This was the smallest decrease since 2016–17, and the state Department of Finance (DOF) had projected a larger decrease (about 41,000). However, this year’s enrollment picture changes when we factor in California’s ongoing expansion of its Transitional Kindergarten program.

California is in the midst of a multi-year pre-kindergarten expansion, increasing age eligibility for Transitional Kindergarten (TK) until 2025–26, when the program will be available to all California four-year-olds. This expansion has increased the pool of eligible students, so we might expect it to increase statewide enrollment. When we omit TK, the statewide decline more than triples to nearly 50,000 students, a decline of just under 1%.

Recent enrollment declines have been most dramatic in kindergarten—especially early in the pandemic. Meanwhile, substantial increases in TK enrollment—it has more than doubled over the past two years—need to be understood in the context of an even larger increase in the eligible age range. When we estimate TK take-up rates based on population-age data, we find that participation declined slightly in 2023–24, from roughly 62% to 59% percent of eligible four-year-olds. This is higher than the rate at the peak of the pandemic (56% in 2020–21) but lower than pre-pandemic levels (above 70% from 2017 to 2019).

Demographic factors—such as declining birth rates and changes in migration and immigration patterns—are the most prominent contributors to long-term enrollment trends. Private school, homeschooling, and “missing kids” were notable factors early in the pandemic but have been less prominent in recent years. A comparison of actual enrollment changes to projected changes across grade levels allows us to see which changes are due to long-term demographic factors and which are in “excess” of projections and might result from parents choosing alternative schooling options and/or disengaging from the public system.

Though enrollment in kindergarten and TK (which are combined in DOF projections) increased more than enrollment in any other grade in 2023–24, it was projected to increase more sharply than it did. First-grade enrollment also fell short. Across all other grades, however, enrollment exceeded projections—most notably in high school grades. This might reflect changes in migration patterns or increased engagement with the public system among families with older children, even as the overall cohort shrinks due to years of birth-rate declines.

Overall, enrollment data paint a mixed picture across grades—but reflect considerable improvement relative to the declines in the first years of the pandemic. Although TK is expanding and attracting more families, the share of the eligible four-year-old population enrolled in TK has declined slightly, and kindergarten enrollment continues to decline in excess of demographic projections. Better-than-expected trends in later grades will come as good news for California’s school districts, which are grappling with difficult downsizing decisions amid expiring stimulus funding and state budget woes. Still, declining birth rates and slow population growth are likely to continue driving modest declines—and downsizing—in most districts over the coming decade.

Topics

coronavirus COVID-19 enrollment K–12 Education Population public school enrollment trends school district transitional kindergarten