Missouri K-12 Enrollment Declined 3 Percent this Year
New data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (ably summarized here) show a substantial decline in K-12 student enrollment during the 2020–21 school year. Missouri was not immune to this trend, seeing a just over 3 percent drop in enrollment this past year. That decline represents thousands of Missouri students who decided to opt out of the public school system for reasons that we are still trying to understand.
There is good news and bad news here.
The good news is that for the first time, many of these families decided to take their children’s education into their own hands. They recognized the limitations of the traditional school system and opted for something better. According to the Census Bureau, homeschooling is up substantially, including in populations not traditionally thought of as homeschoolers. Some recent research on families who homeschooled and who personalized their children’s learning during the pandemic showed the benefits that they saw for their children and for themselves. Insofar as the pandemic helped spur people to rethink education and usher in the year of educational choice, the long-term effects will trend positive.
The bad news is that many traditional public schools are going to struggle in the short and medium term. As children filter back into schools this fall, they will have had vastly different experiences during the past year. Some will have accelerated, with more attention from their parents and creative out-of-school learning opportunities. Some will have declined, with low-quality remote learning stunting their development and disconnecting them from learning. Some will be a mixed bag. Teachers are going to have to figure out how to teach to all these different students at the same time.
As noted, the largest declines in enrollment came in kindergarten, where parents appear to simply be holding back their students for a year until school can return to normalcy. That is going to create a bubble of students that will work its way through the education system for the next two decades. Will schools have to operate extra classes each year as these students progress from grade to grade? How about college applications, with all these students applying at once? And what happens when they all hit the workforce when they graduate? The echoes of the pandemic will reverberate for multiple school years.