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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin public school enrollment hasn’t rebounded from last year’s steep decline

Kindergarteners at Milwaukee's MacDowell Montessori on the first day of the 2021 school year.
Emily Files
Kindergarteners at Milwaukee's MacDowell Montessori on the first day of the 2021 school year.

Editor's note: DPI initially released inaccurate enrollment data. WUWM updated this story to reflect the accurate numbers.

Enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools has not rebounded after a sharp decline in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Department of Public Instruction released preliminary fall 2021 student counts Friday. They show a 0.5% drop in traditional public school enrollment this fall — a loss of about 4,000 students.

That sounds good compared to last year’s unprecedented 3% decline. But it indicates the families who found alternatives to traditional public school last year haven’t returned in large numbers.

DPI School Financial Services Director Dan Bush said this year’s enrollment patterns are mostly on par with pre-pandemic trends.

"What we saw last year was certainly a sharper decline in public school enrollment than typical and a slowdown in the growth of the choice programs," Bush said. "This year the shift between the two has continued to change a little bit more, but the overall counts actually turned out pretty stable between 2020 and 2021."

Last year’s enrollment drop was concentrated on 4-year-old kindergarten or preK. There was close to a 16% decline in 2020. This year, preK enrollment increased by about 7% but kindergarten stayed relatively flat with a 0.7% increase.

>>Where Did Wisconsin's Kindergarteners Go?

Milwaukee Public Schools saw an even steeper enrollment decline this year than in 2020. Enrollment dropped 3% in 2020 and 5% this fall. That's a loss of about 6,000 students since the pandemic started.

Superintendent Keith Posley said in a press conference Friday that the district has cut about 80 vacant positions and shifted about 40 teachers to different schools because of this year’s enrollment decline.

"There’s some schools that gained almost 200 students, there’s some schools that were maybe down 100 students," Posley said. "We have to make sure we have staff where we have students. You may have started out at Rufus King, and now your services may be needed at Milwaukee School of Languages."

DPI also released data on private schools that participate in the publicly-funded choice programs. Their enrollment increased this year by 6.6%. Much of that was in the newer Wisconsin Parental Choice and Special Needs Scholarship programs, rather than the older Racine and Milwaukee programs.

Independent charter schools saw the most growth this year. Six new schools opened in that group and enrollment went up more than 15%.

Student counts play a major role in school funding. Schools with sharp declines will see the effects in their budgets this year and in years to come.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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