After the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly two years ago, what appeared to be a gradual decline of enrollment in Massachusetts’ public schools quickened to a plunge.
Even after modest growth this fall, public and charter schools statewide are still serving 37,000 fewer students than they were in 2019 — a decline of nearly 4%.
Meanwhile in Boston, the steep decline has continued. For the second year in a row, the state’s largest school district is 4% smaller than it was a year earlier. BPS enrollment is down by 4,311 students, or 8.5%, since October 2019.
Rapid declines in enrollment redirect per-pupil aid from state and federal governments, strain school budgets and transportation plans and can scramble long-term planning around facilities and school assignment decisions. Advocates hope that over $400 million in federal relief — and a new mayor focused on housing and affordability — can at least begin to reverse the trend in Boston.
“Enrollment declines raise serious issues,” said Will Austin, who leads the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit that supports public, charter and parochial schools across the city, including with data analysis.
The data published Thursday evening by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education didn’t present easy answers: the declines in Boston were, Austin said, “diffuse.”
As expected, many families opted to leave the Timilty and Irving Middle Schools before this year, likely to close in the summer as part of the district's broader reconfiguration.
But there were also precipitous declines in enrollment at BPS schools with no such plans, including the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, the Higginson-Lewis K-8 in Roxbury and the McKinley schools, which serve students with behavioral issues.
The drops were also distributed more or less evenly across the racial and ethnic backgrounds DESE tracks. Each group shrank by at least 6% since fall 2019, with the steepest drops among Black and Asian students (by 11.6% and 9.6%, respectively).
Statewide, too, the declines were spread out: Boston’s was the 11th largest one-year enrollment decline among school districts, with towns like Bourne, Orleans, Swampscott and Randolph experiencing similar contractions.
BPS officials stressed that there’s little evidence that BPS is “losing” students to private and charter schools or to neighboring districts. Instead they attributed the declines mostly to long-term trends — like climbing housing costs, declining immigration and lower birth rates — that the pandemic may have served to accelerate.
While Austin expressed hope that relief funds could serve as a “bridge” across the worst financial problems caused by these declines, he noted also the generational work to be done: “An open house isn’t going to solve this problem. It is going to take years of investment — in housing, school facilities, school quality and a variety of other things — to grow and retain enrollment.”