Families choosing private schooling over public schools has become a popular topic in discussions around what factors might be contributing to falling public school enrollment. Many California families opted to forego enrolling their children in public schools to avoid remote learning amid the pandemic, choosing homeschooling or private schools—many of which resumed in-person classes earlier than their public counterparts. A look at the numbers suggests that rising enrollment in private school may be linked to factors beyond the pandemic, and falling enrollment in public school signals larger demographic shifts in California.
Both private school enrollment and the share of students attending private schools climbed during the pandemic. After falling from 8.9% in 2006 to a low of 7.7% in the wake of the Great Recession, the statewide share of private and homeschool students increased quickly in recent years, reaching nearly 8.8% or 563,000 students in 2022–23. In terms of total enrollment, private schooling is now at its highest level since 2008–09.
Total private school enrollment—which includes both private schools and homeschools—grew by over 20,000 students during the 2021–22 academic year, marking the most substantial annual increase since 2012–13. It jumped another 12,000 students in 2023, reaching its highest level since 2007–08.
However, when we consider relative numbers, the increase in private school enrollment has been modest compared to public school declines. From 2019–20 to 2022–23, roughly 12% of the decline in public school enrollment may be attributable to families substituting private schools for public. Since private school enrollment had been ticking up before the pandemic, it is likely that not all this change was due to the pandemic.
Homeschooling comprises a small share of student enrollment, but it shifted rapidly during the pandemic. Enrollment in homeschools—defined as private schools serving fewer than six students—surged from 39,000 to 59,000 students during the initial year of remote learning, driving the growth in overall private school enrollment in 2020–21.
If we exclude homeschooled students from the total count of private students, then enrollment at private schools early in the pandemic fell by nearly 20,000 students to the lowest numbers in 20 years. That is, families first chose pandemic homeschooling; then, later in the pandemic, it was students enrolling at non-homeschool private schools who fueled growth in total private enrollment.
These patterns align with the experience of the pandemic and distance learning. During the first year of the pandemic, many families might have turned to homeschooling as a safety precaution. In the following year, families may have enrolled in private schools because several private schools remained open while many public schools continued to operate remotely.
Although private schools and homeschooling saw massive shifts during the pandemic, they still comprise a relatively small share of enrollment and are not a major factor in public school declines. Falling birth rates and migration out of California are predominant causes—and demographic trends suggest declines will continue across regions over the coming decade. These population pressures will also affect private schools: they will be competing with public schools for a dwindling pool of school-aged children.