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Public school enrollment falling nationwide, data shows

Census Bureau data shows K-12 enrollment continued its downward trajectory in 2022, and experts say it’s more than just declining birth rates.
A classroom at the Utopia Independent School in Utopia, Texas.
A classroom in the Utopia Independent School in Texas. Public school enrollment in Texas declined 3 percentage points from 2012 to 2022 while dropping nearly 4 percentage points nationwide.Allison Dinner / AFP via Getty Images file

More and more, parents are opting America’s children out of public school.

The share of children ages 5 to 17 enrolled in public schools fell by almost 4 percentage points from 2012 to 2022, an NBC News analysis of Census Bureau data found, even as the overall population grew.

NBC News’ analysis found:

  • 87.0% of children were enrolled in public school in 2022, compared to 90.7% in 2012.
  • In Kentucky, the share of school-age children in public schools decreased by almost 8 percentage points. 
  • In South Carolina, the share of children enrolled in public schools decreased by 7.4 percentage points. 
  • In Alaska, enrollment decreased by nearly 7 percentage points.

During the same period, the share of 5 to 17 year-olds enrolled in private schools increased by 2 percentage points, the Census Bureau data showed. Charter schools saw a similar increase, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing charter schools. 

Educators and researchers say the swing has been caused in part by laws that have targeted public schools while propping up alternatives. 

“[The rise in charter schools] is a thread of the larger campaign of privatization,” said Abbie Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate in UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies. “Those two things are happening at the same time, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence.” 

Policies that make private, charter and homeschooling options more available to families — dubbed “school choice” by advocates — have expanded rapidly since 2022. Such policies grant families public funds for alternative schooling in the form of vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, refundable tax credits and more. In 2023, at least 146 school choice bills were introduced across 43 states, according to FutureEd, an education-focused think tank at Georgetown University. 

Nineteen school choice laws were enacted last year in 17 states, including South Carolina and Florida, which have seen some of the most dramatic declines of students enrolled in public schools. 

As part of the push for school choice, states are eliminating income limits and other eligibility requirements, allowing higher-income families to receive benefits. Eight states passed such laws or created such programs in 2023, FutureEd’s data shows, bringing the total number of states with these programs — commonly referred to as  “universal school choice” — to 10.

Though Kentucky has seen the most students leave public schools, it is one of 18 states without a school choice program, and the state doesn’t fund charters. Homeschooling and “microschooling,” where students are homeschooled together and may be supervised by someone other than their own parents, are increasingly popular alternatives. An EdChoice/Morning Consult poll reported that 15% of parents in Kentucky prefer homeschooling, compared to 9% of parents nationwide. 

Robert Enlow, the CEO of the nonprofit school choice advocacy group EdChoice, said he is “agnostic” to which options are chosen, but believes the money should follow each student wherever they go. 

“Families are saying, ‘Let me have the resources that are due to me, that I get through taxes that are set aside for my kid, and then let me choose,’” Enlow said.

At the same time that states are pushing school choice programs, public schools — already dealing with declining enrollment — have faced budget cuts, teacher shortages, and laws and fights over what is taught in the classroom. 

More than 20 states have considered bills since 2022 that would give parents more control over the curriculum in public schools, from granting parents access to course materials prior to classes, to banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender and allowing parents to opt their children out of any classes. 

One state that has pushed such laws is Florida. The state has passed several parent rights laws since 2020, including changes to make it easier for parents to ban books from classes, a ban against discussing sexuality and gender identity in younger grades and a ban on teaching critical race theory in classes.

Florida’s 5 to 17-year-old population has grown 9% since 2012, but NBC News’ analysis found that  its public school enrollment fell 7% during that span.

Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said new laws have unclear directions and handcuff teachers’ ability to instruct without fear of retaliation for what’s discussed in class. 

“In Florida, there’s so much micromanaging of our public schools, so many bureaucratic rules and laws that get in the way, that it becomes increasingly difficult for us to do our jobs,” Spar said. “Teachers are vilified; they can’t do their jobs.”

Cohen, from UCLA, said parents are unenrolling students from public schools when they either feel the curriculum is not teaching accurate history, or hope for more conservative changes in school policies and curricula. Her research found that funding cuts are among the policies “fueling mistrust” in public schools and could be leading families to alternatives. 

The states with the largest declines in public school enrollment also have the lowest per-pupil spending, Census Bureau data shows. Educators and researchers question whether public schools will bounce back from recent enrollment declines as districts experience a wave of financial struggles and closures

“Who is hurting the most are the students who have been most historically marginalized in society,” Cohen said. “When more kids are leaving the public schools, that’s less funding for the public schools and those who are left, are left with less.”