A Sherman Elementary kindergarten class. / File photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, schools were thrown into disarray, and closures exacerbated a nationwide trend of enrollment decline in public schools.  

San Diego Unified School District’s enrollment decline nearly doubled from the 2019 to 2020 school year. The rate of decline increased again during the 2021 school year. District data shows that overall San Diego Unified has seen a nearly nine percent drop in student enrollment in the last five years totaling more than 11,000 students. 

On its face, enrollment this year would seem to suggest good news, with the percentage of the enrollment decline cut by nearly two-thirds from 2021 to 2022. But that reversal is largely due to the increase in enrollment of transitional kindergarten. And that’s hardly surprising: the state essentially opened up a grade to an entirely new age group. 

From 2019 to 2020 the rate of enrollment decline increased from 1.3 percent to 2.5 percent. That increased yet again to 2.8 percent during the 2021 school year. But in 2022, the enrollment decline dropped to .9 percent. California’s universal transitional kindergarten program drove much of that change.  

UTK is built on California’s existing transitional kindergarten program, which was created in 2012 after the age requirement to attend kindergarten was increased. That increase left around 100,000 children who were previously able to attend kindergarten too young to do so. Originally, transitional kindergarten was only available to that select group of children, based on their birthdays. But UTK, which will be phased in statewide to include younger 4-year-olds each year, will expand that group to include all of the state’s 4-year-olds by 2025.  

Graphic by Ariana Drehsler

San Diego Unified skipped that phase-in and began offering UTK to all 4-year-olds, regardless of the month in which they were born, last year. Doing so meant that some of the money used to fund the district’s UTK program came out of the district’s existing budget as opposed to from state funding, which is being phased in. 

This expansion has been lauded by experts, who argue that since the vast majority of children’s brain growth occurs before they reach kindergarten age, the expansion of free public education into early childhood will have a significant positive impact on children. Prior to UTK, parents of children in this age group relied on often pricey private childcare.  

The number of children in TK programs district-wide increased by 54 percent from the 2021 to 2022 school year. That amounts to over 1,500 new children in San Diego Unified schools. Even without the sharp rise in UTK enrollment, the district would have seen less of a decline than in the previous two years. But the UTK cushion brought the level of enrollment decline below even pre-pandemic levels. 

Nonetheless, slowing rate of decline due to new UTK students doesn’t change a basic fact – the number of students enrolled in nearly every grade besides UTK fell this school year. 

The largest drop came from students enrolled in independent study, which decreased by over 27 percent. This marks a reversal of a Covid-era trend of increased enrollment in independent study programs, which San Diego Unified leaned into by creating the iHigh Virtual Academy, a hybrid online program. 

Graphic by Ariana Drehsler

The other most significant enrollment declines at San Diego Unified occurred in 9th, 8th and 6th grades. Aside from the enrollment decline in kindergarten during the first year of the pandemic, the drop in 9th grade enrollment was the largest of any grade over the last five years.  

San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera said one of the big reasons for the overall enrollment decline is the increasing unaffordability of housing in the area, which was a concern for policymakers even before the pandemic. But Barrera thinks some of the decline in that specific age group may be due to more macro demographic trends.  

“During the recession years, birth rates declined, families had fewer kids and so now as … those kids are coming through the schools we see enrollment decline as a result of that,” Barrera said. 

Experts have long forecast future college enrollment declines because of declining birth rates that began during The Great Recession, and the effects of declining birth rates have been felt in public schools as well. Some experts have predicted those declines would hit colleges in the next couple of years, which lines up with the age range of the most severely impacted grades at San Diego Unified. 

Kevin Carey, the vice president for Education Policy and knowledge management at the think tank New America has written about this “enrollment cliff” in higher education and said Covid complicates that demographic narrative in public schools. 

“Covid clearly had a significant and historically unprecedented disruptive effect on people’s attachment to all kinds of institutions,” Carey said. “A ton of kids got put into virtual school and were not connected to the institution (of public schools) on a day-to-day basis … and when we came back from it, in terms of attendance policies, not everyone came back.” 

What’s at stake for districts is funding. Much of funding for school districts is based on enrollment, but thanks to a provision that didn’t penalize California districts for declining enrollment during the pandemic, their funding wasn’t affected despite significant fluctuations.  

That provision has since expired. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest budget allows school district’s to average out their past three years of enrollment, which could soften the funding blow created by enrollment drops. Regardless, if UTK enrollment at San Diego Unified continues to rise, it will bring more money to the district. 

Emmanuel Prunty, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California who’s studied K-12 education policy issues like transitional kindergarten, thinks UTK may help public schools attract new students and keep them, but isn’t so sure it’s a cure-all for the trend of declining enrollment. 

“In terms of long term outlook, I don’t know if this will completely offset the demographic trends such as out-migration, not as much international migration and … lower birth rates,” Prunty said. “When the rubber hits the road there’s going to be an issue if enrollment continues to decline as it is.” Birth rates began to tick up last year, with some experts attributing it to a pandemic “baby bump,” but even if those birth rates continue to increase, the decline from 2007 to 2020 could spell trouble for school enrollment – and therefore funding – for years to come. 

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter.

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Jakob.

    Largely left out of this is the impact on enrollment of parents choosing other options for their kids.

    “Covid clearly had a significant and historically unprecedented disruptive effect on people’s attachment to all kinds of institutions,” Carey said. “A ton of kids got put into virtual school and were not connected to the institution (of public schools) on a day-to-day basis … and when we came back from it, in terms of attendance policies, not everyone came back.”

    “Not everyone” seems an understatement.

    Earlier this year the CA Dept of Ed announced that applications to homeschool had literally doubled.

    https://www.redding.com/story/news/2022/03/28/pandemic-sees-california-homeschool-application-numbers-soar/7062155001/

    I don’t know what the latest stats show, but parents choosing charters and private schooling has increased as well.

    It’s not all about simply having less eligible kids to force to attend the local school based on their zip code, whether that school is best for them or not. It’s also about the fact that the pandemic focused parents more on the education their kids were getting – and many decided that’s not what they want for their kids.

    Compound this with the tremendous and well documented failure of traditional public schools to teach core academic subjects, as shown in the latest state and national test results, and can you really blame them?

    I know our schools would like to view this as if they’re simply victims of circumstance and there’s nothing they can do about it, but in reality a portion of the enrollment drop is a result of parents who are unhappy with what they are doing and making other choices.

    Traditional public schools have great advantages in many ways – we chose to send our kids to our local public schools – but fundamentally they’re a state-sponsored monopoly that, like most monopolies provides very little responsive service to their customers – parents. And they’re now suffering the same thing your local business would see if they had the same attitude.

    Those customers who can are choosing to go elsewhere.

    Imagine if, instead of our schools saying “there’s nothing we can do about it”, they instead decided to use this customer feedback to change the things parents are not happy about and entice them to return?

    Imagine how quickly our public schools would improve if we had true school choice and they HAD to pay attention to what parents wanted for their kids, all the time?

    The median total compensation of a San Diego County superintendent in 2021 was $262,305. Imagine if they were incentivized to make sure all parents actually WANTED their kids in their schools instead of simply being forced to go there by their zip code, to earn their paychecks?

  2. Good article, and great post by Maddison. It would also be instructive in such articles to include the trend in the recent years’ student performance testing. In spite of all the money flowing into public schools which teach fewer students, the results are — to put it kindly — far from impressive.

    Another factor that few consider: The CA youth (minor) population peaked in 2004! EVERY year after that, the age 0-17 CA population has decreased. Every single year! This transcends the “pandemic effect” and rising housing costs.

    It certainly is a trend that’s likely to continue. Yet we continue to have our taxes increased “for the children.” Of course, the REAL beneficiaries of the increasing taxes are the public education employees — NOT our kids.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.