(CALMATTERS) – “We just aren’t sure where they’ve gone.”

That comment from Barrett Snider of Capitol Advisors — a lobbying firm for school districts — came in response to sobering data released Monday by the state Department of Education: For the first time since the start of the century, fewer than 6 million students are attending California’s public schools, CalMatters’ Joe Hong reports.

Statewide enrollment this year fell by more than 110,000 students to about 5.89 million, a 1.8% decline from last year — on top of the 2.6% drop notched during the first year of the pandemic.

  • But even after accounting for California’s slowing population growth and high cost of housing, education officials are struggling to explain where all the kids went: For the first time since at least 2014, charter school enrollment also fell — by a whopping 12,600 students. And although private school enrollment ticked up by 9,000 students — a 1.7% increase — that doesn’t account for most of the public school exodus, Joe reports.
  • And while kindergarten enrollment increased after a massive decline last yearfirst-grade enrollment enrollment dropped by 18,000 students — one of the steepest drops for a single grade level. That suggests that many students who were of kindergarten age in 2020 did not return to public schools for first grade.
  • Dwindling enrollment poses both financial and existential questions for schools and state lawmakers: “We should not only be concerned about the fiscal consequences of having less students, we need to question where the students are going and how their educational needs are being met,” Edgar Zazueta, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, told EdSource.

Indeed, the enrollment data is just the latest example of the myriad challenges facing California schools — and students — as they work to recover from the ravages of the pandemic.