Some 240,000 students left public schools during the pandemic and haven’t returned

By February 9, 2023 News

A new study released yesterday reveals startling–and enduring–K-12 enrollment changes from the pandemic. Results, summarized in this Urban Institute policy brief, show that 240,000 students left public schools during the pandemic and never came back … to any school on record. These students, the analysis found, did not pivot to private or home schools. Nor did they move out of state. “They’re missing,” as this Associated Press story notes.

Stanford research yields answers-and more questions

Led by Stanford researcher Thomas Dee in conjunction with Big Local News and AP reporters, the study evaluated data from 21 states, including North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia. Dee and his colleagues looked at pandemic-era K-12 enrollment figures between Fall 2019 and Spring 2022. They found that in these states and DC:

  • The move to private school accounted for 14% of public school enrollment losses.
  • Shifts to home school were larger, representing 26% of the public school enrollment downturn.
  • The drop in the school-age population also had an impact, accounting for 26% of the public school enrollment decline.

Still, researchers cannot account for one-third of the students who left public schools. Here’s the summary from the Urban Institute brief:

The data reveal that two of the primary explanations for the public school pandemic exodus are an increase in homeschooling and a decrease in the school-age population. But these two trends cannot explain the entire enrollment drop. The large amount of public school enrollment loss that, in many states, cannot be explained by changes in nonpublic enrollment and demographics suggests the possibility of other developmentally relevant behaviors (e.g., kindergarten skipping, unregistered homeschooling, and truancy) that merit further research.

Here’s a table from Dee’s study, showing the magnitude of change.

Source: Thomas Dee, “Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographics Change during the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools,” Urban Institute essay, February 2023.

Read more about the study from Stanford News and CBS News.