Kindergarten enrollment at California’s public schools fell dramatically in 2020–21, dropping by over 60,000 students—or almost 40% of the total enrollment decline in the first year of the pandemic. In the years since, kindergarten enrollment has been more of a bright spot, growing slightly both last year and this year. These trends are key to grasping the broader decline in school enrollment because kindergarten has seen the largest shifts in enrollment in recent years and will be an important bellwether for future declines.
In this post, we take a close look at these trends by separating out transitional kindergarten (TK) and examining different age groups. This is critical because the kindergarten enrollment numbers reported by the California Department of Education also include TK, which is in the midst of an expansion to become a universal program by 2025–26. This means that some of the recent enrollment increase is attributable to TK expansion, rather than a true bounce back in kindergarten itself.
When we separate students attending TK, we find that TK accounted for over 90% of the increase in kindergarten enrollment in the 2021–22 school year. TK grew by approximately 6,800 students, while overall kindergarten enrollment increased by around 7,500 students.
Kindergarten grew even more in 2022–23—by over 26,000 students—but this also coincided with an expansion of TK eligibility. The expansion allows children who turn five in January and February to be eligible for TK, significantly increasing its enrollment potential.
While we do not yet have final data on TK enrollment in 2022–23, we can make estimates using the share of four-year-old students attending kindergarten programs. Using this approach, we estimate that roughly 80% of the kindergarten increase observed this past year was due to TK. Alternatively, using preliminary attendance counts in TK reported by the California Department of Education, we would find that roughly 60% of this year’s increase in kindergarten was due to TK.
When we look to the other side of the age range for kindergarten—six-year-olds—a different pattern emerges. Early in the pandemic, some parents questioned whether to start their children in virtual kindergarten in 2020–21, or to “redshirt” them and begin kindergarten a year later at age six. Others may have opted instead for homeschooling or private school for kindergarten, especially for younger children. How much did this contribute to kindergarten declines in 2020–21?
Splitting up kindergarten enrollment separately by age provides some evidence that many parents opted to hold their younger children out of public kindergarten in 2020–21. Whereas enrollment in kindergarten among six-year-olds dropped by 7%, it fell by nearly double (13%) among five-year-olds.
Enrollment has since bounced back slightly for five-year-olds—though since some TK students are five when enrollment is measured, part of this increase is due to TK. Enrollment has continued to decline for six-year-olds. Summed up over the past five years, since 2017–18, kindergarten enrollment has declined by 11% for both age groups.
In future years, kindergarten enrollment will be reported separately from TK, allowing for accurate depictions of trends, especially as TK continues to expand. Furthermore, though “redshirting” appeared to be a factor in 2020–21, differences in enrollment trends for five- and six-year-olds suggest that it was a temporary phenomenon at the beginning of the pandemic when nearly all California schools began virtual instruction. Going forward, it will be important to closely monitor these trends: considering California’s plunging birth rates, TK and kindergarten enrollment will be a key indicator of future enrollment declines in the public school system.