What led to Utah’s K-12 enrollment dropping for the first time in 20 years

The coronavirus pandemic has caused a shift that hasn’t been seen in Utah’s public schools in 20 years: The number of students enrolled has declined.

Some parents have started home-schooling their kids. Others have opted to keep their 5-year-olds out of kindergarten for now. As a result of those and other decisions, the state’s anticipated 7,000 increase in students this fall evaporated. In reality, the school population is instead down roughly 2,000.

A change like this, even if it is temporary, has huge ramifications.

“It’s cause for real concern,” said Mark Huntsman, chair of the Utah Board of Education, which reviewed the preliminary fall head counts for K-12 during a special meeting Tuesday.

The enrollment numbers dictate how much money districts get each year from the state. Put simply, fewer students means less funding. And with a drop as big as this year’s, that could mean losing millions of dollars for public school districts.

Overall, the state has counted 665,790 students enrolled this fall. That’s a decline of 2,150 from the same time in 2019. But with the projected climb of 7,000, it actually turns out to be about a 9,000 student deficit.

While some new students still came into the system from out of state — about 11,000 — the biggest factor that contributed to the decline was parents pulling their kids out to do home schooling this fall.

With COVID-19, many families were worried about sending their students back in person. With the uncertainty over how some districts would reopen, said Scott Jones, deputy superintendent for the state, home schooling became a popular option for those who wanted control. The state found 2,754 kids left their public district and went that route for the start of school last month.

That’s roughly three times the normal transfer rate to home schooling in the state, which usually sees about 800 to 900 kids transition to that each year. “That’s just really significant,” Jones said.

Additionally, there were 2,347 fewer kids enrolled in kindergarten than last year. Usually, the number grows by that many each fall.

In Utah, kindergarten is optional. Jones said some families appear to have decided to skip that to keep their kids home or postponed to next year when there hopefully will be a vaccine. Either way, there’s never been a dip as severe as that in kindergarten enrollment in Utah, which is now at 47,142 students.

Yet another factor in the decline was private schools. The state reported that 616 students transferred to those institutions this year. That’s about 200 more than transferred to the private education system last year. And it’s 400 more than did in 2018.

Jones sees those moves as being made for a different reason than home schooling and delaying kindergarten. Some parents specifically wanted their students to learn in person and when they learned their public district wouldn’t be offering that, they transferred. That happened with Salt Lake City School District, the only district in the state to be starting this fall entirely online.

Though the state hasn’t released data on individual districts, Salt Lake City administrators said last week that they lost roughly 1,000 students this fall. Judge Memorial High, a private Catholic school, said many of those kids transferred to its system.

Judge Memorial spokesman Derek Jensen said the school saw a 20% bump to its freshman class this fall — the largest increase it has had in years. It’s now got 133 ninth graders. And about half of those transferred from a public district.

“We’ve been frankly surprised at how much interest we’ve seen,” Jensen said.

While Salt Lake City delayed class for a few weeks because of the pandemic, Jensen said Judge Memorial let families do a trial run of the private school and many formally switched over after that. It’s running on a hybrid model where students are split into two groups and come in two days a week for in-person instruction.

Jensen added: “Families have really liked that and feel like their kids need to be there for their social and mental health.”

It comes at a cost for public schools.

In Utah, K-12 districts get funding based on how many students they enroll. The weighted pupil unit, or the money that’s supposed to be designated to a school per the average student, is set at $3,515 this year. The number increases depending on if students had special needs, for instance, and it’s generally higher for high schoolers who use more resources.

But, at the very least, with public schools losing 2,000 students largely to home schooling and private schools, that could mean at least a $7 million hit. If calculated for the full 9,000 deficit beyond the expected growth, it’s $31 million less.

“Schools in the state are forward funded, meaning they get their funding in advance based on growth so they’re not running at a deficit,” explained Mark Peterson, the spokesman for the Utah Board of Education. “But it still means that next year, when these numbers are in the budget, some districts likely will be on notice.”

The state board will calculate the funding models for 2021 after another “official headcount” on Oct. 1. These September numbers are considered preliminary — though Jones said he doesn’t expect them to change much.

That count will also give a more detailed picture of movement among public districts. The Utah Board of Education didn’t publicly release data Tuesday on which districts were losing or gaining students.

It determined, overall, that all public districts in the state lost a combined 3,844 students while public charters gained 1,688.

Jones said there’s some special interest in charters that focus on online schooling, with two that have seen jumps in enrollment. Overall, online programs at all schools saw a 63% increase in student counts.

He also said, though, that he believes there’s significant movement within public districts between Granite School District and Salt Lake City School District, for instance, or Canyons School District and Salt Lake City, depending on how parents want their kids to learn. Some have gained while some have lost. The differences are up to 4% in some places.

Salt Lake City School District, for instance, could be looking at $3.5 million less with the 1,000-student loss it reported last week. But other districts have not publicly released their data.

Districts will also use the time until the Oct. 1 count to try to track down any students who seem to have fallen off the map. That drop-off happens every year when kids don’t register or tell their district they’re leaving.

“Some students do disappear without a trace,” said Aaron Brough, the data and statistics coordinator at the Utah Board of Education.

Usually that’s not a high percentage. But this year, more than ever, every student counts.

“It is a different situation than we have encountered in at least 100 years,” Peterson added. “We actually haven’t had a decrease in student enrollment since 2000. And then, that amounted to only about 700 students.”

He paused. “We’re used to having a growing student population.”