Essay Where the Kids Went: Nonpublic Schooling and Demographic Change during the Pandemic Exodus from Public Schools
An Essay for the Learning Curve
Thomas S. Dee
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Over the first two school years under the COVID-19 pandemic, K–12 enrollment in public schools decreased dramatically—with losses concentrated among the youngest students—and the pandemic has had historically unprecedented effects on available learning opportunities. But we know little about where these students went and what learning environments they are experiencing. Understanding the diverse character of these effects has not been straightforward. The pandemic has complicated the comparability of many conventional education indicators and conventional data from administrators, and surveys on student experiences are often available only after long delays.

Key Findings

  • Over the first two school years under the pandemic, K–12 enrollment in public schools fell by more than 1.2 million students, with prominent losses among students in early elementary grades and kindergarten.
  • In the 2021–22 school year, private school enrollment was 4 percent higher while homeschool enrollment was 30 percent higher.
  • The growth in private school enrollment was particularly large in kindergarten and early elementary grades.
  • DC and the 21 states that had available data showed increased homeschool enrollment during the pandemic. The smallest increase occurred in North Carolina, where homeschool enrollment grew by 8 percent. Other states saw particularly large increases, including Florida (43 percent), New York (65 percent), and Pennsylvania (53 percent).
  • During the pandemic, the school-age population in the US fell by more than 250,000; the location of the school-age population shifts and the pattern of states gaining and losing children matched the changes in the total population.
  • More than a third of the loss in public school enrollment cannot be explained by corresponding gains in private school and homeschool enrollment and by demographic change. For example, between the 2019–20 and the 2021–22 school years, K–12 enrollment in California’s public schools fell by roughly 271,000. Though some of this loss can be attributed to the corresponding decline in the state’s school-age population and growth in private and homeschool enrollment, sources fail to explain more than half (about 150,000 students) the state’s public school enrollment losses.


The data reveal that two of the primary explanations for the public school pandemic exodus are an increase in homeschooling and a decrease in the school-age population. But these two trends cannot explain the entire enrollment drop. The large amount of public school enrollment loss that, in many states, cannot be explained by changes in nonpublic enrollment and demographics suggests the possibility of other developmentally relevant behaviors (e.g., kindergarten skipping, unregistered homeschooling, and truancy) that merit further research.

Overall, these data provide new insights that can guide ongoing efforts to understand the pandemic’s educational impact and to address those effects. The sharp and sustained growth in homeschooling and private school enrollment raises new questions about the quality of the learning environments children are experiencing. Additionally, evidence on the role of demographic change suggests that many school districts facing fiscal and operational challenges in the face of enrollment loss are likely to find those enrollment losses enduring.

Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags COVID-19 K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy