Preliminary K-12 enrollment data released by the State Education Department (SED) in January suggests that public schools experienced a decline in enrollment of 66,424 K-12 students, or 2.6 percent compared to the 2019-20 school year. That would be the largest since 1981.

Moreover, a significant number of students are persistently absent from virtual learning.[i] The real number of students to have functionally exited New York public schools is likely higher than the preliminary estimate.[ii][iii]

Enrollment in public schools has been gradually declining since 2010-11. However, the reduction in enrollment between this year and last marks a significant acceleration of recent trends.


Enrollment changes varied by county and region. Declines were most pronounced in the Southern Tier, where a 3.9 percent reduction in enrollment from the previous school year was .5 percentage points greater than the North Country, which experienced the second-largest decline in enrollment. Overall, enrollment losses were more significant upstate than downstate.

Enrollment in most counties decreased between 2018-19 and 2019-20. However, the decrease from 2019-20 to 2020-21 was larger in all but four counties (Essex, Hamilton, Sullivan and Wayne).

Nearly 85 percent of enrollment losses from 2019-20 to 2020-21 occurred in grades K-6. Overall, primary school enrollment (grades K-6) has declined by 7.5 percent over the past decade and secondary enrollment (grades 7-12) by 5.7 percent.


Just over one quarter of the total enrollment drop from this year to last is due to a decrease of 16,851 students in kindergarten.

The change amounts to an 8.9 percent decrease from the 2019-20 school year. That the largest enrollment losses this year occurred in kindergarten mirror national trends.[iv] The phenomenon appears largely driven by concerns and feasibility surrounding young children learning virtually.[v] It may also reflect that the state compulsory education law[vi] mandates schooling for children ages 6-16. Consequently, parents of 4- and 5-year-old children can elect to delay public school enrollment.

Changes in enrollment varied significantly according to economic status. Enrollment among students classified as economically disadvantaged[vii] decreased by 3.9 percent compared to last year. However, among students not categorized as economically disadvantaged, enrollment increased by 2.9 percent. Three COVID-19 relief bills adopted over the previous year have directed states to allocate funds to districts proportional to their funding from Title I, a federal program that distributes funds to districts to benefit low-income students. Consequently, it is likely that changes in enrollment are inversely related to how much money districts will receive from the relief bills.

In terms of differences across racial groups, the decline in enrollment among Black and white students was appreciably higher than among Hispanic or Asian students.


Enrollment among students with disabilities decreased by 2.9 percent compared to 2.6 percent for general education students. New York has a poor track record[viii] of providing for public school students with disabilities, and school closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic appear to have exacerbated the issue. New York City data released in January indicates that 24 percent of students with disabilities were not receiving the full program of services to which they are entitled[ix] by state and federal laws.

Education Department data also confirm continuation of a decade-long trend which has featured reductions in the number of students enrolled in traditional public schools and increases in the number of students in charter schools. Charter enrollment grew by 7.4 percent in 2020-21 compared to the previous year, whereas enrollment in traditional public schools decreased by 3.2 percent.

While school enrollment has shrunk by an estimated 2.6 percent, the executive budget proposes increasing school aid by more than 7 percent.[x] New York’s historic decline in enrollment could be accompanied by a historic increase in per pupil spending that already profiles as the highest in the nation.[xi]

[i] Korman, Hailly, O’Keefe, Bonnie and Matt Repka, “Missing in the margins: Estimating the scale of the Covid-19 attendance crisis,” Bellwether Education Partners, Oct. 21, 2020.

[ii] The decline in enrollment likely represents a combination of Covid-related factors, including frustration with virtual learning, concerns about the safety of learning in-person and acceleration in out-migration from New York.

[iii] SED data do not provide information on where unenrolled students went (e.g. enrolled in a private school, moved to another state, dropped out of school).

[iv] Kamenetz, Anya, Treviño, Marco and Jessica Bakeman, “Enrollment is dropping in public schools around the country,” NPR, Oct. 9, 2020.

[v] Reilly, Katie, “’Where are the Kids?’ School is back in session, but many Kindergarteners are missing,” Time, Sept. 22, 2020.

[vi] New York Education Law § 3205

[vii]Economically disadvantaged students are those who participate in, or whose family participates in, economic assistance programs, such as the free or reduced-price lunch programs, Social Security Insurance (SSI), Food Stamps, Foster Care, Refugee Assistance (cash or medical assistance), Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP), Safety Net Assistance (SNA), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), or Family Assistance: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

[viii] Kingsbury, Ian, “Perverse incentives, high costs and poor outcomes: Understanding and improving special education in New York,” Empire Center, November 5, 2020.

[ix] Zimmerman, Alex, “1 in 4 NYC students with disabilities aren’t getting mandated school services this school year, new data shows,” Chalkbeat, February 10, 2021.

[x] New York State Fiscal Year 2022 Executive Budget

[xi] U.S. Census Bureau 2018 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data.

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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