Declining birth rates and COVID disruptions are driving down enrollment in Colorado public schools
This story was originally published in The Colorado Sun.
Student enrollment has continued declining across Colorado public schools, with the state counting about 1,200 fewer students in kindergarten through 12th grade this fall than last year, when enrollment in preschool through high school plunged by about 30,000 students.
State officials largely attributed last year’s enrollment slump — which was the first of its kind reported in more than 30 years — to parents’ pandemic-driven decisions. Many held off on enrolling kids in preschool and kindergarten while other families switched to homeschooling or online education programs. And the Colorado Department of Education, which on Wednesday released enrollment numbers from a count conducted in October, expected that enrollment numbers would increase again within the next few years.
But the dip in K-12 students this year points to an underlying issue that has nothing to do with the pandemic: declining birth rates.
The drop in student count this year isn’t some kind of “COVID blip,” said Brian Eschbacher, a Denver-based independent education consultant who previously served as executive director of planning and enrollment for Denver Public Schools. Declining birth rates are having a trickle-down effect on K-12 enrollment, with education being “the first government institution that is going to feel the impacts of a shrinking country,” Eschbacher said.
“It is absolutely here and it is not going to get better and our school systems don’t know how to deal with it,” he said.
Declining numbers could spell financial trouble for some school districts, because district budgets are largely determined by pupil counts.
“The reality is fewer kids does equate to less funding in many cases,” said Kate Bartlett, executive director of school district operations for the state education department.
During fiscal year 2021, Colorado had 61,970 births, down about 9,000 from 2007, a peak year that saw 70,777 births, according to state demographer Elizabeth Garner. The decrease comes even though Colorado has more women of childbearing age, Garner said.
Colorado districts across metro, suburban and rural communities showed enrollment declines, as did schools in cities and towns of all sizes across the country, Eschbacher said.
The state, which measures student enrollment in 178 school districts each year, tallied 855,482 K-12 students this year — down 1,174 students from fall 2020. DPS, Colorado’s largest school district, counted about 84,200 K-12 students this year, down from 85,400 students last year.
DPS was already seeing enrollment decreasing, first at the elementary school level, which fed into a dip in middle school enrollment “in the last year or two,” said Liz Mendez, executive director of enrollment and campus planning for the district.
“We were already seeing a decline moving through our system based on population dynamic changes,” Mendez said, citing decreasing birth rates.
Soaring home prices in Denver are also factoring into the district’s enrollment downturn, she added.
“A lot of families have moved out of the Denver boundary because they can no longer afford housing,” Mendez said.
DPS officials anticipate that declining birth rates will continue to drive down enrollment in the future.
When asked about the decline in K-12 enrollment this school year, Bartlett, of the state education department pointed to increased mobility among students as one critical driver.
“There’s just a lot of variability and mobility within the system overall,” Bartlett said, citing students moving, switching school choices and the possibility of immigrant families returning to their home countries.
Future school enrollments could possibly swell depending on student numbers in preschool and kindergarten, particularly as the state expands its preschool program in fall 2023 and as it continues offering free, full-day kindergarten.
Enrollment in preschool and kindergarten this school year bucked the trend of K-12 enrollment, with preschool enrollment climbing by 4,478 students — a nearly 17% increase over last year. Schools are educating 3,868 more kindergarteners than they did last year, which amounts to a year-over-year increase of about 7%.
More students in those grades could translate to higher student counts in subsequent grades down the road.
Bartlett is encouraged by the boost in enrollment among Colorado’s youngest learners, particularly preschoolers.
“I am a huge believer in early childhood education,” she said, “and the more students we have engaged in the system earlier, the better outcomes I hope we can deliver for them.”
Eschbacher sees increases in preschool and kindergarten enrollment as modest after schools suffered the greatest enrollment losses in those grades last year. The state reported a 23.3% drop in preschool enrollment and a 9.1% decrease in kindergarten enrollment last year.
So many parents held back their 4- and 5-year-olds amid the pandemic last year, he said, that “some percentage of them rejoined districts this year.”
Demographic shifts in schools could stem from state’s population changes
With the spread of COVID, particularly the omicron variant, still challenging schools’ abilities to keep classes in person, the pandemic is also tamping down K-12 enrollment in Colorado.
The number of students opting for home-schooling this school year is 10,502, a third fewer than the 15,773 students home-schooled in fall 2020. However, the number of home-schooled kids in the state remains much higher than the 7,880 kids who were home-schooled in 2019, before the pandemic. Many students are also choosing to learn through online educational programs — 31,382, compared with 32,034 who did their classes online last year, according to figures from the state education department.
Public school demographics are also shifting statewide, according to enrollment figures. The state’s population of Hispanic students enrolled in schools jumped by 4,357 students to 306,215 total. Meanwhile, fewer white students showed up to public schools this year, with 3,106 fewer students counted than last year. The state recorded 460,186 white students this school year.
Those shifts could be indicative of broader population changes in Colorado. The percent of white residents living in Colorado dropped by 0.2% from 2010 to 2020, translating to a decrease of nearly 6,300 people, according to 2020 census data. In the same time period, Colorado’s Hispanic or Latino population rose by 21.6%, increasing by more than 224,700 people.
“The overall demographic of Colorado is becoming less white and more diverse,” said Van Schoales, senior policy director of the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit research group. “I think that the schools would reflect that.”
While Colorado is facing decreasing birth rates, its general population has grown by 14.8% from 2010-2020, according to 2020 census data.
“Only time will tell if that will help sort of steady K-12 enrollment,” said Maya Lagana, a contractor for the Keystone Policy Center.
Bartlett, of the state education department, also cautioned against making broad assumptions about enrollment changes in the state, emphasizing the importance of looking at changes district by district.
That’s important in terms of both demographics and enrollment numbers. More than 60 Colorado districts tallied fewer students this school year, but 115 districts experienced a bump in enrollment.
Colorado has devised a funding mechanism to assist districts struggling with flagging student enrollment.
A state formula that seeks to average out funding is meant to help soften the blow, providing funding to districts based on their current year of student enrollment or an average of two, three, four or five years —whichever results in the highest student count.
But the averaging provision won’t solve the entire funding problem for districts.
“Colorado does not fund public education as well as a lot of states,” DPS chief financial officer Chuck Carpenter said, “and certainly a decline in enrollment plus state funding is a challenge for all school districts, not just Denver.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Thy Vo contributed to this report.