Minnesota public school enrollment fell 2% this school year as many parents opted for private school, home schooling or postponed their students’ first year due to health concerns. pandemic.
The decline, which has been more pronounced among younger students, has major budget implications for districts already grappling with this year’s additional and unexpected operating costs. Because each student accounts for about $10,000 in state funding, even relatively small enrollment losses add up to large budget gaps.
Districts that have seen double-digit percentage declines in their student population are now planning significant reductions in staff, course offerings and school programs. Many are hoping for some relief from the Legislative Assembly, but expect that even a multimillion-dollar aid package won’t be enough to plug the holes or account for the uncertainty over numbers. of returning students.
The Menahga Public School District, northwest of Brainerd, saw the steepest drop in enrollment in the state: 20 percent. Superintendent Kevin Wellen said his district has already had to drain much of its reserve fund and expects to cut staff by about 10% next year. Facing uncertainty about the pandemic, additional state funding and how many students will be returning in the fall, Wellen said planning is harder than ever.
“It’s a wild rollercoaster,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Education projected enrollment for the 2020-21 school year would be up from the previous year, but not as rapidly as in recent years. But data released by the department on Friday shows that many families, especially those with younger students and white students, have adjusted their plans.
Statewide, kindergarten enrollment in public schools fell 9%, with private schools seeing a 12% increase. Many kindergartners were missing because the mandatory school enrollment age in Minnesota is 7 years old. That means families who have turned to homeschooling or are waiting to start first grade haven’t needed to report those plans to the state.
Families who dropped out of public school often sought very different options. Some, especially younger students, have sought out schools they believe will remain open for in-person instruction during the pandemic. Others wanted to avoid the potential for unpredictable swings between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning models — or avoid the possibility of in-person learning until the pandemic subsided.
St. Rose of Lima Catholic School in Roseville was among the private schools that saw renewed interest last summer. Kindergarten to Grade 8 enrollment is up 73% this year and could have gone up even more. To keep the risks of COVID-19 low, the school has limited class sizes and put families on waiting lists.
Sean Slaikeu, principal of the school, said it looks like the trend will continue, at least for now. Almost all of the new families who registered this year have already registered for the fall.
“I think COVID was the catalyst that got parents thinking: what other options are there? Slaikeu said.
Despite strong gains in the early years, however, private K-12 enrollment rose only about 1%, with secondary school enrollment declining.
In some districts, including Menahga, home schooling was the main option for families who had left public schools. Statewide, home school enrollment grew nearly 50% in the 2020-21 school year. Other students have moved to other public districts or charter schools because of their virtual offerings. Enrollment in online public schools — those created as full-time virtual academies, not the distance learning option offered by districts this year — is up 69% from last year .
Hoping for a bounce
White students accounted for the majority of public school enrollment losses, with a decline of about 4%. Enrollment rose slightly among students of color, with gains among all racial groups except Asian students. The number of white students in Minnesota public schools has been declining for several years, but the decline was steeper this year than in the past.
These trends were visible in many districts, including Robbinsdale, where district-wide enrollment fell 6%, one of the biggest declines in the metro. (Only Burnsville and South St. Paul, which saw a 7% decline, were higher.) In Robbinsdale, white students accounted for 63% of the decline, although they make up about a third of the district’s student population. .
Acting Superintendent Stephanie Burrage said families made decisions this year based on their own needs and concerns. Now the district is focused on picking up as many of them as possible by highlighting things like its small classes and arts program — while grappling with a likely $4.4 million hole. in the budget.
“We’re looking at how to market to students, so parents know what we have to offer, what’s going on in Robbinsdale,” she said.
District leaders across the state are eager to see what happens with the Legislature’s proposals to soften the blow from enrollment losses. Gov. Tim Walz’s budget includes $25 million in one-time funding to help fill those gaps, while another bill would use pre-pandemic student numbers to determine funding.
State Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said in a statement that Minnesota should aim to prevent schools and students from suffering greater losses.
“We hope our public school enrollment will rebound as Minnesota recovers from the pandemic,” she said. “Until then, we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that our public school systems provide our students with the education they need and deserve.”