Public Schools Lost 1.4 Million Students. How Do You Get Them Back?

5 min read
Jan 10, 2023 8:00:00 AM

School leaders are in the midst of district transformation due to flat or declining enrollment. How can public schools reverse this trend?

Fewer students matriculating into and remaining in a district has a significant, cascading impact on the health and efficacy of a school system — and most of the gut-wrenching decisions that follow shrinking enrollment are devastating:

  • School closures
  • Job loss for teachers and staff
  • Increased workload on remaining faculty
  • Loss of resources, extracurriculars, and programs for students
  • Delayed maintenance of school campus, facilities, and critical infrastructure

News outlets report in near-daily doses stories of large districts across our nation facing similar circumstances.

And the situation is looking bleak, as revealed in this recent article from The Wall Street Journal: public district schools have lost more than one million students since the start of COVID-19.

The canary in the coal mine has stopped singing. The time to act is now.

Table of Contents

1. Student Enrollment and District Sustainability
2. What is Driving Declining Enrollment?
3. How Can Public Schools Boost Enrollment?
4. Let’s Step Forward — Together

The Funding Gap - How to Equalize Opportunities for Low-Income Students

Student Enrollment and District Sustainability

Districts have infrastructures ready for growth. After all, it’s easier to add highly qualified staff, key programs, classrooms, and resources when you factor additional dollars from a swelling student population into your budget.

Unfortunately, budget constraints are married to declining enrollment. And they present a host of issues that are never neatly packaged — nor simple to address.

The complexities are widespread and decentralized in the student body and across grades, classrooms, buildings, and legacy financial obligations.

As an example of how this can play out in a school district experiencing declining enrollment, let’s take the cost of teacher employment:

  • Across the United States, the annual salary of a teacher typically falls in the range of $46,662 to $68,136 — with an average of $55,873.
  • The average per-pupil funding for public schools equates to $13,185.

This means that losing as few as four students can cost a district one teacher’s job.

sad teacher speaking to principal

As students leave and your district loses funding, the negative effects then build upon each other:

  • Job cuts must be made for teachers and other faculty, leading to larger class sizes, fewer classroom resources, mixed-grade classrooms, and more.
  • Highly qualified, skilled teachers may decide to leave on their own for schools they perceive as better-equipped to serve students.
  • With fewer teachers, remaining students experience worse academic outcomes.
  • With worse academic outcomes, community perceptions of that school change, affecting whether families will enroll or stay enrolled — further worsening the existing decline in enrollment.

In this way, declining student enrollment can send districts into a “death spiral” that leads to the devastating question of whether to close schools.

Families and teachers largely oppose school closures. But, of course, no superintendent or school board lightly makes the decision, typically seeing school closures as a last-resort option. 

But as explained in the Wall Street Journal article, when a school in the Jefferson County Public Schools system had a first-grade class with only five students and had to combine grades in one classroom under one teacher, shutting down that underused campus was the unfortunate, painful choice that had to be made.

Where are districts supposed to go from here?

First, you need to recognize you have a problem. And then you need to understand why it’s happening.

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What is Driving Declining Enrollment?

A number of factors contribute to the enrollment decline plaguing public district schools:

  • Shifting demographics
  • Declining birth rates
  • Rising housing costs
  • Competition from charter and private schools
  • Growing home-school and virtual school options

And decreasing student enrollment is even worse for lower-income areas.

Urban schools in particular are highly vulnerable, as they’re seeing increasingly higher student-exit rates along with fewer younger students entering the same schools.

How Can Public Schools Boost Enrollment?

Where should districts turn? How can they find a sustainable balance? And how can they make their schools more attractive to new families?

There’s no secret formula to resolve the issue. But with 74 million children in this country (and the child population projected to decrease), better policies and planning on the part of districts will be necessary.

Perhaps most necessary of all is a shift in the way districts think of and approach student recruitment and enrollment.

As Chief Enrollment Officer Nick LeRoy explains:

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of school choice, it is a factor and a competitive reality for today’s public district schools.

It can be challenging for an already cash-strapped district to devote money to marketing, but this investment is necessary as public districts are now operating in an increasingly free-market environment.

Ultimately, the winners in school choice will be the schools that do the best job marketing themselves to prospective parents.

I highly recommend reading his recent article, The Death of the Neighborhood School, for additional insights.

Districts can no longer afford to passively think “if our doors are open, families will come.”

You need to engage with and educate your community and local families on your district’s enrollment options while marketing all you have to offer students.

Let’s Step Forward — Together

To keep your schools open and keep providing an education to current students as well as future generations, you must take action now.

Modern-day student enrollment is a much more universal experience than simply registering and showing up on Back-to-School Day. Gone are the days of families passively going with the nearest neighborhood school option.

Today, districts must embrace a strategic approach to enrollment: Strategic Enrollment Management — an ongoing, deliberate approach to choice and family engagement.

As SchoolMint CEO Bryan MacDonald explains:

This data is clear evidence that the old approaches to public school enrollment are not working like they used to and that new solutions, tools, and approaches are needed if public schools want to continue to thrive.

We know firsthand how important the choice of a school is and how to help public schools stand out in this new choice-driven environment.

The good news is that the students are still there — public schools have a big opportunity to turn this trend around. And we want to help them. SchoolMint was created to help schools not just manage enrollment but improve it. It is our mission and our north star.


Taking this new approach to increasing public school enrollment begins with enrollment marketing and family outreach — occurring well before your enrollment period kicks off.

You then transition to accepting applications and registrations and continue with family engagement throughout the entire school year.

Keeping this high level of engagement and delight is then key to retaining students, earning the enrollment of their siblings, and keeping their families happy to stay enrolled with you — day after day, year over year.

To consult with an enrollment expert on what your public school or district can do to boost student enrollment, get in touch here.

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