All California K-12 students deserve an engaging education that prepares them for college, career, and community life. However, many K-12 students are increasingly not enrolled and not attending schools. Students of color, students learning English, and students from families with low incomes have disproportionately experienced declines in enrollment and attendance. State policymakers should pursue policies that increase attendance rates and re-engage students who are not enrolled, many likely due to the health, economic, and learning challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While recent California student enrollment in K-12 public schools has fallen sharply overall, declines have been especially pronounced for socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color.1Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are either eligible for free or reduced priced meals or have parents or guardians who did not graduate high school. In 2021-22, enrollment for socioeconomically disadvantaged students fell by 3% from the prior year, following a drop of more than 3% between 2019-20 and 2020-21. Enrollment dropped for students in most racial and ethnic groups in 2021-22, but these drops were larger for most racial groups who were socioeconomically disadvantaged. These drops in enrollment were double the average statewide decline for Pacific Islander (6.4%) and Filipino (6.1%) students and nearly double for Black (5.8%) students.
Even for students enrolled in K-12 schools, many lost educational opportunities because they were chronically absent.2Students who are chronically absent are those who miss school for 10% of instructional days or more in a school year. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students disproportionately experience chronic absenteeism — with varied causes including limited transportation, adverse health conditions, and housing insecurity. The pandemic exacerbated these challenges causing chronic absenteeism to soar, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color and English learners. In 2020-21, nearly one-third of socioeconomically disadvantaged American Indian/Alaska Native (32.2%) and Black students (31.9%) were chronically absent, as were more than a quarter of Pacific Islander students (27.8%), and nearly one in five Latinx students (19.2%). The chronic absenteeism rate for socioeconomically disadvantaged English learners spiked to 18.8%, approaching the statewide average of 19.4%.
California students of color, students learning English, and students from families with low incomes not enrolled or attending K-12 schools are losing critical access to curriculum and social structures that schools, educators, and peers offer. While state policymakers weigh options to address the fiscal impacts on California school districts due to shifts in enrollment and attendance, they also hold responsibility for the educational and social well-being of students who have historically faced barriers to learning. To fulfill that responsibility, policymakers’ choices should prioritize the meaningful engagement of K-12 students and their families and help them rebuild educational opportunities.
Support for this report was provided by the Sobrato Family Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.