Oregon school enrollment worries officials as it continues dropping, though the decline is slowing
Thousands of students haven’t returned to public schools as part of a ‘concerning’ trend
After two years of students leaving Oregon public schools by the thousands, enrollment declined again this year but not nearly as much, a sign that enrollment is stabilizing. Yet the state doesn’t know where a lot of those students who left went.
Before 2020, enrollment in Oregon’s public schools had been growing for nine years straight. That trend changed as most Oregon schools closed for more than a year before slowly reopening, according to a December 2022 analysis of Oregon school enrollment during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the 2020-2021 school year, enrollment declined 3.7%. The next year, it fell again by 1.4%. The Oregon Department of Education analysis notes that Oregon’s ongoing decline set the state apart from most neighboring states, where enrollment either grew or leveled off in 2021. Only California experienced a continued decline, but officials point out that enrollment has been declining there since 2017.
This year, statewide enrollment data released last week shows another decline in enrollment, but a smaller one. The number of Oregonians enrolled in public schools dropped 0.1% from the previous year, a net loss of 632 students.
In an email to OPB, ODE officials said they consider this year’s enrollment as a “stabilization.”
Oregon officials find lack of enrollment recovery ‘concerning’
The drop in enrollment shows Oregon schools have shrunk by thousands of students over the last four years. In October 2019, Oregon public schools enrolled 582,661 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
Student enrollment as of October 2023 statewide stands at 552,380, a loss of more than 30,000 students.
Enrollment at Oregon’s largest school districts varied. The state’s three largest – Portland, Salem-Keizer, and Beaverton – all lost students this year. But two of the next biggest districts – North Clackamas and Eugene – gained students.
Of the largest districts, Medford had the largest change, with enrollment dropping two percent from the previous year.
School district funding is tied to the number of students served – fewer students generally means fewer state dollars. A decline in the number of students comes at a time when students are returning to school with greater needs. Schools are also starting to face financial reality with the deadline to spend pandemic relief funds a little more than a year away.
In the December brief, ODE officials said the move to distance learning may have led to a decline in enrollment in the early years of the pandemic, but “it is concerning that Oregon has not yet experienced any enrollment rebound after largely returning to in-person instruction.”
In a message to OPB, ODE officials said the state remains concerned about every young person in Oregon.
“We are aware and vigilant in trying to work with districts and communities to understand what have been pandemic impacts and what are longer-lasting impacts to where students are engaged and enrolled in school,” said the message from ODE Communications Director Marc Siegel.
The most recent national enrollment data available show an enrollment decline from 2019 to 2020, but enrollment ticks back up in fall 2021.
State officials said that the decline in Oregon was due to several factors including families leaving the state, as well as families finding other schooling options.
Mystery surrounds thousands of school-aged children who are still in Oregon, but not in public schools
Oregon officials estimate that more than 20,000 students in Oregon are not in public schools. While some may be doing school another way, officials say there may be other reasons – including “discipline practices, disengagement, inflexibility, or other structural factors” – that drove them away from the public school system.
ODE said homeschooled students make up most of that 20,000, but that still leaves thousands of students unaccounted for. They may be in private schools, but state officials don’t collect that data.
State officials say it’s the responsibility of school districts to keep track of the students they serve, including “attempting to contact those who have left enrollment without a documented transfer to another educational setting.” The state does provide school districts access to information about students who leave one Oregon district and enroll in another.
Though Oregon public schools are no longer losing students at the same rate, data over the last four years show who is leaving or not enrolling, and who is coming back.
Over the last four years, officials say the decline in enrollment has been “concentrated” among white students and kindergartners.
Among white students, the steep enrollment drop from 2020 has slowed – from a 5.5% decline among white students in 2020-2021 to a 1.2% decline in 2022-2023.
At the same time, Oregon schools are getting more diverse as the number of students of color in schools has stabilized. There are more Latino, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and multi-racial students now enrolled in Oregon public schools than there were in 2020-2021.
As for where students have gone, past conversations have focused on virtual schools, homeschooling and private schools.
Virtual school en]rollment jumped in the first year of the pandemic, boosting enrollment in districts with an online school, but state officials say the increase was “short-lived”.
ODE does not keep “comprehensive data’' on students who attend or have moved to private school. While ODE has previously shared numbers of homeschool students statewide, officials now say that number is only available by contacting individual education service districts.
Siegel said legislators are considering whether to require the state education department to collect data on students attending private schools or homeschooling.
According to the ODE report, homeschooling accounted for a large part of the decline in public school enrollment, with a reported 70% increase in homeschool enrollment in 2020-2021 compared to the previous year, or a rise of roughly 13,000 students.
Oregon homeschool enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year was 29,162, according to the Associated Press – a slight decrease from the year before.
Other families may have moved out of Oregon.
The problem of students not returning to school is not unique to Oregon. A recent Associated Press story highlighted the high numbers of “missing” students nationwide, calculating that 230,000 students in 21 states, including Washington, are not accounted for and did not enroll in private school or start homeschooling. The AP’s analysis didn’t include Oregon because of incomplete state data.
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