The blog of the Urban Institute
February 12, 2021

An Equitable Return to Early Education Demands a Smart Approach to Data

February 12, 2021

After nearly a year of uncertainty, President Biden has announced plans to reopen the majority of America’s public schools in his first 100 days in office. This effort requires investments in infrastructure, protective equipment, and vaccines, plus a consistent focus on racial equity. But equitable reopening requires more than bringing teachers and students back to the classroom. It means reversing major declines in public school enrollment during the pandemic, especially in preschool and kindergarten.

Declining early grade enrollment during the pandemic

In the absence of federal data collection (PDF), national surveys provide the best evidence on current public school enrollment. The Rapid Assessment of Pandemic Impact on Development (RAPID) - Early Childhood offered an early window into families’ decisionmaking. Early last September, RAPID asked 1,000 families whether they would wait to enroll their 5-year-olds in kindergarten. Seventeen percent said yes—nearly three times as many as before the pandemic. Later in the fall, an NPR survey of more than 60 school districts in 20 states reported kindergarten enrollment drops of 16 percent, on average.

Enrollment decline has several causes. Where schools are operating in-person, concerns about health, safety, and transportation may lead families to keep their young students home, as only 12 states require kindergarten attendance (and preschool is voluntary nationwide). Where hybrid or virtual models are in effect, concerns about screen time and lack of socialization may lead families to disengage. Across the country, efforts to balance school, employment challenges, and family obligations with few supports have left families distressed.

Black families and other families of color have been least likely to support school reopening because of a history of unequal school resources and ongoing racial inequities during the pandemic. Declining enrollment in the early grades is an equity issue—one that could exacerbate disparities in educational opportunity and outcomes for a generation.

Methods matter in reversing declines

States and school districts are reporting striking drops in preschool and kindergarten enrollment, but simple year-over-year comparisons are not enough to drive smart reopening policy. Florida’s kindergarten enrollment provides a helpful example. Although the state’s leadership has shown unusually strong support for reopening despite opposition from public health officials and teachers’ unions, kindergarten enrollment has declined for all racial and ethnic groups. (Trends are similar for prekindergarten.)

Line graph that shows kindergarten enrollment in Florida in fall 2016, fall 2017, fall 2018, fall 2019, and fall 2020 for racial and ethnic student groups. Kindergarten enrollment dropped for all groups in fall 2020 because of the pandemic.

The critical question is: What would kindergarten enrollment have been in the absence of the pandemic? Enrollment counts from 2019, though instructive, do not tell the whole story.

As the figure above shows, Florida’s public school enrollment in kindergarten has increased in recent years. Enrollment gains have been strongest among students identified as Hispanic, two or more races, and Asian, following demographic trends. Enrollment among students with an identified disability has also grown. Enrollment among Black students has declined.

Adjusting for prepandemic trends can change the size and relative scope of enrollment declines. Comparing Hispanic and white student enrollment in Florida helps illustrate this point. Between 2019 and 2020, 6 percent fewer Hispanic students enrolled in public school across the state, and 10 percent fewer white students enrolled. But these drops follow different prepandemic enrollment trends. In recent years, Hispanic enrollment has been increasing steadily in Florida’s public schools, while white enrollment has remained relatively flat. And we would expect those trends to have continued in the absence of the pandemic. Accounting for those expected trends, adjusted enrollment drops for Hispanic students increase to 7 percent and decrease to 9 percent for white students—changes of 462 Hispanic students and 247 white students across Florida.

The figure below shows 2020 enrollment declines for all available student groups in percentages using year-over-year comparisons (yellow dots) and adjusted for trends between 2016 and 2019 (blue dots). Adjustments reduce estimated drops in kindergarten enrollment for some groups, such as economically disadvantaged students (by about 2 percentage points, or 2,432 students), because these groups were already getting smaller before the pandemic. For groups that have grown in recent years, adjustments make estimated drops in enrollment more severe (such as for Asian American students, where declines grow by 3 percentage points, or 152 students across the state).

Dot plot with arrows that shows how estimated declines in kindergarten enrollment change after adjusting for prepandemic trends. Declines become less severe for some groups (economically disadvantaged, English-language learner status, Black, and white) an

An equitable approach to reopening

To restore early grade enrollment, the Biden-Harris administration will need a rigorous and equitable approach. This could start by partnering with state and local education agencies to support research and data capacity. Many states have not yet finalized 2020 enrollment counts, and current data are critical for identifying true enrollment declines.

The administration could also consider issuing guidance on measuring declines using methods similar to the trend adjustments shown here. Additional prepandemic years of data and more sophisticated modeling, including federal enrollment projections (PDF), can help identify accurate targets for new enrollment and the districts and schools where declines have been concentrated. Better data use would allow the administration to focus recovery resources on the most affected schools and districts and to advance culturally and linguistically responsive recovery efforts. Simple year-over-year comparisons could lead efforts off target, wasting recovery resources and potentially exacerbating enrollment inequities.

Monitoring throughout reopening can also help realize enrollment goals. The administration could take a continuous quality-improvement approach, tracking enrollment closely and engaging Black communities and other communities of color to ensure outreach efforts are effective and reopened classrooms are safe, welcoming, and enriching. Together, current data, rigorous methods, and targeted resources can get American early education back on track.

Kindergarten students practice their social distance walking through the library on Monday morning, Nov. 9, 2020, at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas, CA, one of the first elementary schools to open up in LA County. This in the Las Virgenes Unified School District, which was the first public school system in LA County to win waiver approvals. (Al Sei/Los Angeles Times)

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