Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series looking into a May 2023 Wisconsin Policy Forum report on upcoming school budgets.
WISCONSIN — Wisconsin’s schools have lost tens of thousands of students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new report from Wisconsin Policy Forum, there is no enrollment recovery in sight.
Enrollment in Wisconsin schools has been declining every year since 2014, but when the pandemic hit, that decline took a deeper dive.
Prior to the pandemic, there were 854,959 students enrolled in Wisconsin public schools. Since then, enrollment has dropped by 32,155. The largest decline occurred from 2020 to 2021, when schools lost 25,024 students.
While there were enrollment declines in grades 1 through 12, the primary reason for the pandemic dip was driven by lack of pre-kindergarten, four-year-old kindergarten and kindergarten students.
Statewide, 9th through 12th grade enrollment is at or above pre-pandemic levels overall. Enrollment in 5th through 7th grade enrollment is about 4,500 students lower per grade compared to 2020 headcounts.
The 2022-2023 school year accounted for the lowest overall school enrollment since 1992.
Wisconsin Policy Forum attributed the enrollment decline to a trifecta of demographic shifts including deciding birth dates, a migration from public schools to private schools/homeschooling and the pandemic.
Private schools, the report said, have recovered from a pandemic dip. Last year, 121,729 students attended private schools in Wisconsin. This year, 124,447 students enrolled in the state’s private schools — a 2.2% increase. That’s the most students the state has seen enroll in private schools since 2012.
Wisconsin Policy Forum said that home schooling data has not been released for the current school year, but noted there were 7,758 more Wisconsin kids being homeschooled in 2022 than 2020 — a 35.8% difference.
Of Wisconsin’s 10 largest school districts, 9 saw declines from last school year to this one. Milwaukee Public Schools lost more than 1,600 students, accounting for the largest decline of the 10 districts at 2.3%. Appleton School District was the only one of the group to see and increase — its student body grew by 0.3%.
Madison Metropolitan School District lost 1% of its students — 260 in total — which was higher than the statewide rate. In MMSD, enrollment has declined “rapidly” since the onset of the pandemic. MMSD expects that headcount to continue to fall. Wisconsin Policy Forum cited the pandemic, low birth rates in Dane County and an increase in local students attending voucher and independent charter schools as driving factors.
When accounting for all of Wisconsin’s school districts, 164 saw increased enrollment, enrollment stayed the same in 5 and 252 saw a decline in enrollment.
“After three years of schooling impacted by the pandemic, it seems as if drops in enrollment are likely to continue. Over time, that means state revenue limits and aid payments for districts will fall, adding to their budget challenges,” Wisconsin Policy Forum said.
Read the full report below: