Enrollment in New York public schools this year sank to its lowest level since the early 1950s, according to preliminary state Education Department (NYSED) data, from 2.4 million in 2022-23 to 2.38 million.

The enrollment data include students from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 in public schools, which includes charter schools. Most of the statewide loss (-24,305, or -1 percent) was concentrated in New York City, where, despite the unexpected arrival of migrant children, enrollment fell 21,310 (-2.4 percent). On Long Island, enrollment was virtually unchanged from 2022-23, with schools adding 409 students (0.1 percent). North of New York City, districts lost 3,404 students (-0.3 percent).

Following the post-World War II baby boom, New York public school enrollment reached its highest-ever level, 3.5 million, in 1970-71. Enrollment slid through the 1970s and 1980s to 2.5 million, before rising in the 1990s to its recent high of nearly 2.9 million in 1999-2000. Enrollment has since trended down, almost uninterrupted (figure 1).

Figure 1.

Source: NYSED

Since 2011-12, the last year in which enrollment rose, the number of students in New York public schools dropped 320,209 (-11.9 percent) (figure 2).

Figure 2.

Source: NYSED, Empire Center calculations

The decrease since 2018-19 (the last full year prior to the coronavirus pandemic) was 198,259 (-7.7 percent).

Looking at the change during that period, every county (with the exception of Rockland) has fewer public school students in 2023-24 than it had in 2018-19 (figure 3). The largest decrease was in the Bronx, where enrollment fell 41,742 (-21.2 percent).

Enrollment also fell more than 10 percent during the period in Cortland (-10.1), Queens (-10.6), Columbia (-11.1), Kings (-11.5) and Schuyler Counties (-12).

Figure 3.

At the district level, 555 of the 685 districts outside New York City (81 percent) are below their pre-pandemic (2018-19) enrollment. Another 33 districts would have declined were it not for increased enrollment in optional pre-kindergarten. Enrollment is down at least 10 percent in 157 districts (23 percent). (Figure 4)

Figure 4.

Source: NYSED, Empire Center calculations

On Long Island, 83 of 125 school districts (66 percent) had decreased enrollment compared to five years ago. In the counties north of New York City, decreases occurred in 472 out of 560 districts (84 percent).

New York City public school enrollment is down 12.2 percent since 2018-19, from 994,964 to 873,787. The state’s other largest districts also lost enrollment:

  • Buffalo: -5,823 (-11.3 percent)
  • Rochester: -6,028 (-20.9 percent)
  • Yonkers: -2,532 (-9.5 percent)
  • Syracuse: -2,658 (-12.6 percent)

How Much Lower?

School enrollment reflects both the size of the school-age population and decisions by parents on how their students learn.

The combination of a declining fertility rate, net domestic outmigration (more people moving to other states than moving from them) and a decline in lawful foreign immigration helped push the school-age population (age 5 to 17) down from its recent high (nearly 3.5 million in 2000) to around 3 million.

The impact of parental decisions on school enrollment was visible when more than 100,000 students exited the New York public school system ahead of school year 2020-21 and largely do not appear to have returned. This coincided with, among other things, a surge in homeschooling which appears to have been sustained. With more innovation in the micro-school space, and with parents having more flexible employment thanks to remote work, it is becoming easier for parents to find alternatives to the public school system besides their historical options of private and parochial schools.

One meaningful indicator of New York’s future public school enrollment is the number of students in kindergarten, the first year for which attendance is compulsory (figure 5). In 2013-14, New York public schools had 189,828. The number trended down gradually before sinking nearly 10 percent in 2020-21. After a slight increase in 2021-22, the numbers again ticked down in both 2022-23 and the current school year. All told, New York public schools this year have 155,049 kindergartners, 18 percent (34,779) fewer than 10 years ago.

Figure 5.

Source: NYSED

Data Note: the number of districts excludes two districts (Berkshire Union Free School District and Inlet Central School District) which ceased operations during the five-year review period. The Elizabethtown and Westport districts, which merged, are counted as one district. Fire Island UFSD 2023-24 enrollment, omitted from NYSED data table, collected via telephone.

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