Tennessee Public School Enrollment Mirrors National Decline

Photo: TN Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn with Student on Final Day of AcceleratingTN 2021.

Photo Credit: Tennessee Department of Education / Facebook

Published July 2, 2021

By Jon Styf [The Center Square contributor] –

Tennessee matched the national trend as public school enrollment this past school year was down 2.9% in the state compared with the 2019-2020 school year, according to preliminary data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

Tennessee Capitol Building in Nashville

The decline in enrollment will not affect state funding for Tennessee’s public schools in the short term. Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill that holds harmless Tennessee’s public schools in the state’s funding formula for the 2021-22 school year despite changes in enrollment. Funding is determined by school enrollment from the previous year.

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, said he expects that adjustment to be a one-year, one-time exception to the Basic Education Program state funding formula, expected to cost the state an additional $8.9 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

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“There will be some lasting effects to school populations into the future,” Johnson said. “There are parents who pulled their kids out of public schools because of COVID or perhaps because the public school was closed and chose to home school them or, perhaps, put them in private schools.”

The Education Law Center said Tennessee schools ranked 43rd nationally in cost adjusted per-pupil spending at $10,894 per pupil, $3,655 below the national average. The ELC also graded Tennessee’s funding effort, state funding as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product, with an F grade. 

The NCES report showed national enrollment fell 3% last school year after years of enrollment increases across the country.

“K-12 enrollment in our nation’s public schools has been slowly increasing almost every year since the start of this century,” said Ross Santy, NCES associate commissioner for administrative data. “Before this year, in the few recent years where we have seen enrollment decreases, they have been small changes representing less than 1 percent of total enrollment.”

Tennessee was among 30 states that had an enrollment decrease of between 1% to 2.99%, while 18 states experienced decreases of 3% or more.

The largest noticeable decrease was in preschool and kindergarten, where there was a 13% decrease in enrollment nationally.

“I’m especially concerned about the steep drop in enrollment for children just getting started on their formal education – the Pre-K and kindergarten students,” said Mark Schneider, director of the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education. “Research shows that these early years are essential in helping students succeed academically and socially. While it is too soon to say which students were most affected; it is safe to assume that students who struggle the most may be the ones who really lost out.”

The NCES data release this week was part of a large data set on school enrollment in 49 states. NCES cut off the enrollment information in October, and only Illinois failed to meet the spring reporting date for data.

The NCES, which is the statistical center of the U.S. Department of Education and the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing education data, will release the complete national results next spring, including enrollment data for all states and student counts by grade level, race, ethnicity and sex.

“The decreases were widespread and affected almost every single state and every region of the country,” NCES acting commissioner Peggy Carr said. “Some states saw enrollment declines by 4 to 5 percent. The data are preliminary but concerning. We need to confirm the data and see what more they can tell us about potentially large losses in learning opportunities.”

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About the Author:

Jon Styf is a freelance writer for Tennessee and South Carolina.

Follow Jon on Twitter @JonStyf.

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