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On Public School Enrollment, Census Contradicts State Education Department

Preliminary enrollment data from the State Education Department (SED) show that New York experienced the largest decline in public school enrollment in four decades. While the estimate is dramatic, it is also likely overly conservative. New Census data hint at a greater drop-off.

The preliminary enrollment estimates published by SED measure officially tallied changes in the status of student enrollment. However, de facto changes in student enrollment can occur in ways that do not get tallied, especially amidst the chaos and logistical challenges imposed by virtual and blended learning. In analyzing the SED enrollment data in a report earlier this month, I cautioned that “the real number of students to have functionally exited New York public schools is likely higher than the preliminary estimate” of a 2.6 percent decline.

Census data appear to validate that suspicion. The Census Household Pulse Survey—which reflects individually self-reported data rather than official bureaucratic tallies—reveals that the share of New York households that homeschool at least one child increased from 1.2 to 10.1 percent between April 2020 and October 2020.

The Pulse Survey made clear to respondents that homeschooling does not include students enrolled in public or private schools but receiving additional help from their guardians while they learn virtually. The 8.9 percentage point increase in the number of homeschooling households therefore signals a decrease in public and/or private school enrollment, even if public school enrollment decreases are not final tallies.

SED meanwhile estimates that enrollment in New York public schools declined by 2.6 percent between 2019-20 and 2020-21. The math can be done to reconcile SED and Census estimates, but it requires making assumptions that are likely unmet. For example, it is possible that public school enrollment only declined by 2.6 percent if the overwhelming number of new homeschool households were previously utilizing private schools. Given that only 13.5 percent of New York students were enrolled in private schools as of 2016-17, this scenario is highly unlikely.

Census and SED estimates could also be reconciled by assuming households that now homeschool tend to only do it for one child in the family, or tend to have smaller families. In other words, while the number of households that homeschool at least one child is up by 8.9 percentage points, perhaps the increase in the number of homeschooled students is comparatively modest. This scenario is also unlikely. Factors driving the surge in homeschooling—presumably some combination of dissatisfaction with virtual learning or fears about face-to-face learning—are likely to induce families to homeschool all their children.

The likelihood that SED data reflects complete information is further strained by the fact that New York is losing population at a faster rate than any state. The 2.6 percent decline in enrollment estimated by the SED must not only be reconciled with an 8.9 percentage point increase in homeschooling, but also a .65 percent decrease in population between July 2019 and July 2020.

The Household Pulse Survey does not provide a full picture of how many students have functionally exited New York public schools. Ominously, it indicates that the same is true for SED data, which almost certainly underestimates the scale of New York’s enrollment decline.

Regardless of the precise numbers, New York is set to receive $14 billion in additional federal funds for K-12 education through three COVID relief bills, and lawmakers are on the cusp of increasing Foundation Aid by an additional $1.3 billion per year. It all adds up to a strong probability that a historic hike in spending accompanies a historic drop in enrollment.

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