PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · June 11, 2024

California’s Multilingual Population Is Driving TK–12 Enrollment Declines

This is the second post in a three-part series on California’s public school enrollment changes in the 2023-24 school year. Previously, we examined enrollment by grade and the impact of Transitional Kindergarten expansion. Stay tuned for a third post on enrollment trends across California’s regions.

photo - Teacher Helping Student at Desk in Classroom

Now in its seventh year of enrollment declines, projections indicate California’s public school system is facing at least another decade of downsizing. Enrollment declines are not uniformly spread across grade levels or across demographic groups. When we compare enrollment trends for multilingual students and those who speak only English, we see a notable divergence that could have implications for schools and districts serving English Learners (ELs).

Among students who speak a language other than English at home—a group that includes current and former ELs, as well as students deemed English proficient upon school entry—enrollment fell by 41,000 (or 1.8%) last year, a drop that was lower than declines over the past four years and roughly on par with declines in the two years before the pandemic. By contrast, enrollment among students who speak only English at home— known as “English Only” (EO) students—grew by 23,000 students (0.7%) last year.

This divergence predates the pandemic: enrollment among English Only students has grown in six of the last nine years; declines in 2020–21 and 2021–22 occurred amid broader declines as families of young children opted for private or homeschool options or out of school entirely. In fact, statewide enrollment of English Only students is virtually the same as it was roughly a decade ago (3,539,761 in 2023–24; 3,549,195 in 2014–15).

Multilingual enrollment has declined in each of the last nine years and is now 400,000 students (or 15%) below what it was in 201415. While some of this decline is probably attributable to changes in immigration, the majority of English Learner students are and have been US-born, so it is more likely that falling birthrates—particularly among Latina women—are a bigger factor in the decline. In this context it is worth noting that the decline in multilingual enrollment broadly aligns with a small decline since 2016 in the share of Californians speaking a language other than English at home.

There are signs of relatively small compositional shifts in the state’s multilingual student population. The share of ELs among all multilingual students has dropped slightly, from roughly 52% in 2014–15 to 47% today. The share of students who speak another language at home but are initially fluent in English has increased in recent years but is not much higher than it was a decade ago (11.5% in 2014–15 vs 11.9% in 2023–24). The share of former ELs has increased from 36% to 40%, but it is below its peak of 44% in 2019–20.

Declines in EL populations (down nearly 320,000 and 4 percentage points since 2014–15) have potential programmatic implications for districts. First, supplemental state funding flows to districts in part based on the numbers of EL students. Declining numbers could result in reduced base, supplemental, and concentration funding. Further, declining numbers could impact program offerings, making it more challenging to offer bilingual or dual immersion programs and/or translation services.

Demographic projections suggest these declines will continue: in counties with the highest shares of EL students, overall enrollment is projected to decline by 11%, while those with the smallest shares are expected to see 2% growth. District and state policymakers will need to pay careful attention to these emerging trends to ensure that changing demographics do not compromise services for students and families with non-English language backgrounds.


English language learners enrollment K–12 Education Local Control Funding Formula Population public school enrollment trends