Mystery: What’s Behind the Dramatic Fall-off In K and Pre-K Enrollment?

Source: Virginia Board of Education

by James A. Bacon

There are many gaps and omissions in the Northam administration’s just-published “2021 Annual Report on the Conditions and Needs of Public Schools in Virginia” — most notably the lack of recognition that the acute problems described by the report stem in part from policies endorsed by the Northam administration itself — but the Board of Education (BOE) document does highlight several issues that any fair-minded person would acknowledge need highlighting.

One of those issues is the sharp decline in public school enrollment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most notably in Pre-K and Kindergarten. As seen in the graph above, pre-K enrollment is down 18.6% and Kindergarten is down 12.8%.

Do these declines portend comparable declines in public school enrollment as these age cohorts work their way through the educational pipeline? Has something fundamental changed about the way parents of young children think about their schooling? Or are these declines transitory blips that will disappear as America learns to live with the virus?

These questions are vitally important. If public school enrollment in Virginia falls by 10% or more over the long term, the fiscal impact could be momentous.

As consequential as the issue is for public schools, the report devotes virtually no analysis to it. The report never proffers an explanation for the fall-off. Rather, it settles for placing the enrollment decline in the context of the COVID-19 epidemic. In the section discussing enrollment impacts, the Board says, “The Board anticipates that many of the challenges and uncertainties experienced by local school divisions will continue long after the pandemic ends.” Leaders are left to assume that COVID is somehow to blame.

Surely, there is more to say about the enrollment decline than that. Why would parents be yanking their youngest children out of the public school system, and not middle- or high-school kids?

One factor impacting the thinking of parents with young children might be the paucity of child care. During the pandemic, child care has become notoriously difficult to find. For women who have to juggle work responsibilities with child care, the challenge is especially acute.

Given that child care has become a major preoccupation, though, it would stand to reason that parents would be more likely, not less, to enroll their children in Kindergarten and pre-K programs. After all, K and pre-K provide a child-care function. One would expect that poor working mothers would be particularly eager to avail themselves of this option. Yet precisely the opposite has occurred.

As the BOE report says:

Head Start enrollment was down 30% for the 2020-2021 school year. Enrollment numbers were down six percent for the Virginia Preschool Initiative, despite extending the enrollment period to January 2021. Overall preschool enrollment decreased by 18.58%. Participation in child care subsidy dropped to a low of ~14,500 children in January 2021, a drop of 43% from before the pandemic.

Children who participate in Head Start or subsidized child-care programs come mainly from single-parent households, many of which are headed by poor, working mothers who need child care but lack the financial means to pay for it. Why aren’t they, of all people, enrolling their children in greater numbers? Are they deterred by a fear of COVID? Do they share the broader disenchantment with public schools? Is there a reason we haven’t identified?

Something isn’t adding up. Something is happening at a sociological level that educators and the chattering classes have yet to put their finger on. I have no idea what that is. But I would expect the Board of Education to be doing its damnedest to find out. From what I can tell from the BOE report on conditions and needs, not only does the BOE not have any answers, it’s not even asking the question.

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30 responses to “Mystery: What’s Behind the Dramatic Fall-off In K and Pre-K Enrollment?”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    I think you should consider vaccination rates for the age group in question and the non-mandatory nature of the pre-K. Also, much easier to homeschool a K-aged student without risking them falling behind. Very possible that mothers of young children do not feel that schools are safe (from a public health standpoint). Chalk another “win” up for the inexplicable anti-vaxxer contingent.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Also, because Mom/Dad just changed jobs for more money then Dad/Mom can now stay home rather than take a part time, no-benefits minimum wage job and has time to spend with pre-K, K kids.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        For the pre-K and K students, pretty easy to assume many parents are just holding back for a year. Depending on birth date, some see an advantage to the extra year. No question there has been some exodus to homeschool or private school, but at the younger ages that is an additional choice.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Additional and easier choice. Those are still 1/2 day programs, adding the financial burden of after hours care makes that choice easier. At 8, I was a latchkey kid. Do that today, and CPS would be up the parents’ alimentary canals.

          1. Matt Hurt Avatar

            In many parts of the state, Pre-K and Kindergarten are full day programs.

        2. That sounds like a likely — and easily verifiable or falsifiable — theory.

    2. Three plausible theories, all worth considering.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: blame it on COVID. Yes. Clearly, there are impacts and impacts of 1st, 2nd and 3rd effects. It will take years to fully analyze the how and why and the BOE has other, more important fish to fry right now, less important why rather than the here and now.

    Some changes may be temporary, but others might be longer-term and will stick.

    I “attended” a Zoom presentation last night. In normal times, I would have had to travel 50 miles to NoVa to attend and the speaker would have had to fly from Portland to Washington. But with Zoom, he presented from Portland and I “attended” from my home.

    Mention was made that perhaps next year, things could get back to ‘normal’ where presumably the speaker would have had to fly to Washington and I would have had to spend hours dealing with NoVa traffic.

    So I don’t think we’re going back to before, not for this and not for school and not for K and PreK.

    We just don’t understand the how and why yet. That will take time.

    So I don’t fault the BOE for not providing “analysis’ and I really do think their main job is to deal with the current realities… and worry about the how and why as more and better understanding is developed.

    1. So I don’t fault the BOE for not providing “analysis’ and I really do
      think their main job is to deal with the current realities… and worry
      about the how and why as more and better understanding is developed.

      Can’t plan ahead for classroom needs and staff and budgets without some idea of anticipated enrollment numbers and what’s driving them currently.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        They ARE aware of and paying attention to those numbers. But the WHY behind them is a longer “learn” if you will.

        They basically react short term – and try to discern trends. The bigger trends behind them is way behind their scope and ability.

        I’m sure you realize that or hope you do.

  3. James Kiser Avatar
    James Kiser

    In my area people have had enough of the the teachers unions controlling the schools especially at the early stage. Many are home schooling due to the politics and the pedophilia being pushed by the school systems.Maybe the new state AG will do his job and throw some of these people in jail for the child pornography in the school library systems.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Just to be clear–it is not the AG’s job to “throw people in jail.” That is up to locally elected prosecutors. The AG has only limited jurisdiction to prosecute cases.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        All I can say is “geeze”… in terms of what is expected of the AG.

        One of the things that parents have always done is find “good” schools in good neighborhoods. If some feel that there are also differences in the school districts themselves and the teacher unions, perhaps they can and will move to jurisdictions more to their liking cuz I don’t think the AG is going to fix their issues.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s some of what was not addressed in the blog post:

    ” The Environment Surrounding Public Education

    ‘The stressors and challenges of the pandemic have motivated members of the public to voice their passions, at times in less than constructive ways. Unfortunately, there have been a small but vocal group of citizens engaging with school boards and other educators in disrespectful, and sometimes threatening ways. Typically, local school boards focus on setting budgets, hiring and terminating teachers, textbook adoption, facilities and student transportation. Over the past 18 months, many schools and local school board meetings have been marked by intense political and cultural debates. Across the country and in Virginia, local school board members, superintendents and even teachers have faced threats, hostility and violence.”

    Anyone with half a brain knows that this affects teachers and morale… yet the focus here is on “unfinished learning” and how far behind Virginia is compared to other states… which is not really addressed in the report and doubtful that it’s actually true.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      What I focused on was the sharp decline in the 4th and 8th grade reading scores before the pandemic and the apparent lack of alarm by the state about that decrease and about the revelation that only about a third of the Commonwealth’s 4th and 8th grades have a reading level of proficient or above.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Two words can explain that. Betsy DeVos. Or is that 3 words? Fish rot from the head.

      2. LarrytheG Avatar

        Okay. Do you have a reference for the sharp decline? Was it statewide , just about all schools or just some? What sharp decline prior to the pandemic?

        And in terms of proficiency. what standard is being used? The NAEP standard or is there another?

        I just think we need to be precise and accurate on this issue. I do think Virginia needs to improve and especially so for some of the demographic classes like blacks, Hispanics and ESL but again will point out that if one looks at NAEP rankings for the country, Virginia has ranked in the top 10 and as high as 6th as compared to other states.

        Few states, if any, have all their kids meets the NAEP basic proficiency levels and also most states have the same demographic subgroup “gap” issues that Virginia does. It’s not unique to Virginia – it’s a common issue in many, if not most states.

      3. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: ” I was most exasperated by the discussion of how Virginia students compared to the rest of the country on reading. While Virginia students still scored above the national average, from 2017 to 2019 (pre-pandemic, mind you), the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on both the 4th and 8th grade reading tests declined significantly. The report conveys no sense of alarm that only 38 percent of Virginia 4th grades were rated as proficient or above in reading and, even worse, only 33 percent of the 8th graders achieved that level”

        Can you provide a link to this report?

        is this what you are talking about;

      4. Matt Hurt Avatar

        Dick, since around 2015, there had been a concerted effort to push performance based assessments in Virginia. The initial effort was focused in history, and rightly so. We cannot accurately assess what we want students to walk out of a history class with a multiple choice test. Also around that time, there was a lot of downplaying of the SOL tests from the Board of Education and the VDOE. While that is good for history, an SOL test that really doesn’t measure the important stuff, this is detrimental to reading and math which the SOL test can measure some desired results in those content areas. This really put it out there that the SOL test was not what we should focus on in the minds of many educators. Therefore, that had the overall effect of lowering expectations, an unintended consequence for sure.

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    You give the BOE more credit than it deserves. Yes, the Board’s name is on the report, but this is a staff report that the Board has endorsed.

    A lot of the fall in pre-K and K enrollment can be attributed to the pandemic. Many parents of children this age were at home, either unemployed or working from home. Virtual education does not work for this age, so they were not enrolled. And, as pointed out by Steve, a lot of parents just decided to hold their kids out.

    I agree the report should have gone into more analysis in this area. What are the demographics? Is the size of the pre-K and K population in Virginia increasing or decreasing?

    I was tempted to say that 2020-2021 was an outlier and we should wait to see the figures from this year. However, this sentence stood out for me:

    “For the 2021-2022 school year, enrollment numbers remained stable

    compared to the 2020-2021 school year but are still down when

    considering pre-pandemic enrollment”. The implication of that sentence is that there indeed might be a basic shift underway.

    I have skimmed part of the report. Some observations:

    1. Continued use of the term “unfinished learning”. What does this term mean? Ideally, none of us are finished learning until we are dead. It is just a euphemism for kids falling further behind in reading and doing math at grade level.

    2. There is a lot of emphasis on the effect that enrollment declines will have on local school divisions with regard to state funding. The report argues that a decline in enrollment will not result in a comparable decline in costs. That is true enough. There needs to be a teacher in a classroom even if the class size had decreased from 26 to 20. Also, there needs to be a principal in each school even if the average number of pupils in each school has decreased by 20. The report urges the General Assembly to hold local school divisions harmless regarding enrollment declines. I expect Gov. Northam’s budget bill to include such provisions and the funding to do so. As one example of the effect, an in today’s RTD estimates that Richmond could lose $20 million per year due to enrollment decline.—up-4-2-billion-in-2-years—means/article_c321fc62-6dcd-5c9f-bdcf-bf439f4231c0.html#tracking-source=home-top-story

    3. I was most exasperated by the discussion of how Virginia students compared to the rest of the country on reading. While Virginia students still scored above the national average, from 2017 to 2019 (pre-pandemic, mind you), the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on both the 4th and 8th grade reading tests declined significantly. The report conveys no sense of alarm that only 38 percent of Virginia 4th grades were rated as proficient or above in reading and, even worse, only 33 percent of the 8th graders achieved that level.

    This is basic. If students cannot read well and understand what they are reading, they will do poorly in other areas. The report does acknowledge,

    “Virginia must do more to help young learners attain grade-level proficiency in reading.” But it devotes a scant paragraph to what can be done. And that is more of the same: “equitable supports and services”. recruit high-quality teachers, and more funding. Nowhere is there any suggestion that maybe, just maybe, the state should be doing something different. One example of something different would be to follow the lead of Mississippi and switch to a phonics-based approach to teaching reading.

    The report’s attitude seems to be: “Yes , our scores have declined, but we are still above the national average, if only barely.”

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      The Mississippi approach vastly improved their performance but they were so far back to start with that even with the improvements, they still ranked below other states like Virginia.

      People forget. Virginia needs to improve and yes it fell behind on COVID but Virginia still is in the top 10 of the states… and … phonics alone is not the total fix.

      And finally.

      Despite what some folks say about teaching and teachers, it’s a professional occupation and teaching kids reading does require a professional who is trained and skilled in that work.

    2. Dick, your comment here anticipated a couple of my follow-up posts. I, too, was struck by the phrase “unfinished learning,” and I was struck by the comparisons with the rest of the country.

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        Oops, didn’t mean to step on your lines.

    3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
      Eric the half a troll

      “That is true enough. There needs to be a teacher in a classroom even if the class size had decreased from 26 to 20.”

      From a budgeting standpoint, I recall year after year of budgets justifying line item increases on a goal of reducing student class sizes by a seat or two. Essentially, it is all about student to teacher ratio. If that number stays the same, a reduction in enrollment means a reduction in the operating budget and class size (average that is) remains the same . If that number is reduced class size is reduced and per student costs increase even in a year of increased enrollment.

  6. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    I can tell you what is going on (from my own family).
    You have working Moms and Dads, with jobs, and kids, and the public schools say “sorry, due to COVID we are closing our doors for the unknown future: so deal with it parents, it is your kids, your problem, and if we open, we might close again: we repeat parents- this is YOUR problem, not the public schools…you are on your own.”

    So the parents are forced to deal with it, and one way to deal with it, is to get out of the public schools and send kids, at least temporarily, to private schools, which were not shutting down. But the parents are not happy with the situation, I believe many will come back to public schools when, and if, it appears the public schools will stay open more reliably.

    It was a terrible situation too (COVID) because many grandparents were powerless to help their families as they usually would due to the Quarantine of us older folks. Some families allowed grandparents to help, but many families lost that help due to trying to protect the older folks from COVID.

    So (1) closing the schools and (2) disallowing older generation to help created an extremely difficult double-whammy situation.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      so if you blame the schools instead of COVID, who do you blame for the Grandparents instead of COVID?

      Same problem? COVID? Neither grandparents nor schools want to get COVID?

      COVID is the problem. We seem to have a “need’ to blame someone or something rather than accept the realities that are inherent with COVID.

      Do I blame the doctor when he requires me to have my temperature taken before entering and queries me about my shot status and requires me to wear a mask?

      He’s the one to blame?

      When I was “forced” to attend a meeting remotely instead of in-person, do I blame the agency that made that change?

      So, let me give one more non-COVID example.

      Do we blame VDOT for congestion and accidents?

      Do we blame the airlines for canceling flights due to staff shortages and weather?

      At some point, don’t we need to accept the fact that it’s not someone’s “fault” but instead circumstances that are entirely within our control AND ….. DEAL with it, accept responsibility for dealing with it and stop trying to assign blame?

  7. Matt Hurt Avatar

    There’s a couple of things to consider. First, parents are not compelled by state code to send kids to Pre-K or Kindergarten. Mandatory school attendance begins in first grade. Second, has anyone seen any place of business that didn’t have a help wanted sign posted this school year? That makes me think that there are less folks working than before, so there’s probably also less need of childcare.

  8. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    All my questions about the state of education were answered one day in the Musee D’Orsay, in a room full of Lautrec’s, with the benches filled with teenagers on their phones. For as long as I watched them, not one painting was examined, not one conversation engaged. Now I see that everywhere. The digital age has rotted their brains, now into the second generation. Next question? Has nothing to do with COVID, but being out of school has certainly exacerbated things. If you think the schools are scary, think about social media raising the kids!

  9. Gwen Frederick Avatar
    Gwen Frederick

    It is difficult for a child that age to wear a mask for long periods of time. Since it is mandatory for masks to be worn in school, less enrollments.

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