Wisconsin Public Radio

Public School Enrollment Didn’t Rebound After Pandemic Dropoff

Public school enrollment down, voucher and charter programs up.

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Oct 15th, 2021 12:03 pm
A sign outside Neeskara Elementary School in Milwaukee encourages kindergarten and pre-K students to enroll. The pandemic drove larger-than-usual enrollment declines, mostly in kindergarten and 4K students. Madeline Fox/WPR

A sign outside Neeskara Elementary School in Milwaukee encourages kindergarten and pre-K students to enroll. The pandemic drove larger-than-usual enrollment declines, mostly in kindergarten and 4K students. Madeline Fox/WPR

As schools entered another pandemic school year, public school enrollment failed to rebound from last year’s big 3 percent drop.

Enrollment in public school districts dropped 0.6 percent from September 2020 to September 2021 — less than the 3 percent drop seen last year but still larger than the 0.4 percent decline reported in 2019.

Independent charter schools and the state’s four parental choice programs saw substantial enrollment increases, according to new data released Friday from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Wisconsin schools will start to feel the COVID-19 enrollment declines in their general school aid as this year’s revenue limits and state funding are determined by a three-year rolling average of school enrollment that includes last year’s steep drop in the number of students at Wisconsin public schools.

Schools saw a large decline last year, most of it driven by fewer families sending their kindergartners and pre-kindergartners to public, charter and parental choice program schools. The number of kids in virtual charter schools and homeschooling increased.

The state’s two largest school districts saw decreases greater than the statewide drops. Enrollment in Milwaukee Public Schools decreased 3 percent, while enrollment in the Madison Metropolitan School District decreased 1.5 percent.

In Kenosha — where local groups mobilized against some parents’ efforts to keep their students out on the Third Friday Count day that determines enrollment to protest the school’s COVID-19 precautions — there was a 3.1 percent decline in enrollment, which was about the same as last year’s drop in that district, but much bigger than the statewide average.

School enrollment in Wisconsin, and in other parts of the country, has been on the decline since the late 1990s, when the children of baby boomers — who themselves drove record enrollment numbers — were in their peak schooling years. Four-year-old kindergarten programs helped offset some of that decline for a while, but they took a big hit last year, when enrollment dropped 15.8 percent. This year, schools saw 4K and preschool special education rebound with a 6.8 percent increase in enrollment.

Attendance is not legally required for 4K and kindergarten in Wisconsin.

Grades 1 through 12, which are subject to Wisconsin’s mandatory school attendance laws, saw a 1.2 percent decrease in enrollment.

Wisconsin’s total school district headcount as of Sept. 17 was 813,448.

The increase in independent charter school enrollment was 10 times last year’s increase — 15.6 percent, compared to a 1.6 percent increase the year before. Their 4K enrollment increased by 18.3 percent, while kindergarten enrollment increased by 15.8 percent.

Wisconsin has four private school parental choice programs, which reported a 6.6 percent increase from September 2020 to September 2021, compared to a 5.9 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. Like the independent charters, they saw an increase in 4K enrollment by 10.7 percent, though kindergarten enrollment increased by 5.1 percent. Grades 1-12 saw a 6.5 percent increase.

DPI will fill in more of the statewide enrollment picture in January, after analyzing data from families that homeschool and private schools that aren’t in the parental choice programs, which have a later reporting deadline.

Though school enrollment numbers are used to determine how much money schools can pull in through a combination of state aid and property taxes, those revenue limits are based on a three-year “rolling” average of September enrollment and 40 percent of summer full-time enrollment, which means the averages used this year incorporate last year’s decline alongside the two pre-pandemic school years.

There is a declining enrollment exception, which provides a one-year top-up to what a district’s revenue would have been if it hadn’t seen a decline.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated.

Wisconsin public school enrollment didn’t rebound after last year’s big drop was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

One thought on “Public School Enrollment Didn’t Rebound After Pandemic Dropoff”

  1. KrisG-K says:

    Well, yes, of course, last year enrollment went down in Milwaukee and Madison Public Schools as well as other districts that went virtual to curtail the spread of Covid.
    Choice and private schools that stayed open, of course, saw enrollment increases, and enabled Covid spread.
    The youngest children of the large “baby boomer” generation are now college-age and most of them are much older. This, plus Trump’s crackdown on immigration, means many fewer children of school-age in the United States. There are fewer adults of child-bearing age = fewer children, period.
    So! Urban Milwaukee, I respect you greatly, but declining public school enrollment is not largely a pandemic issue.

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