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

Kindergarten Enrollment Plummets In Wisconsin Amid Pandemic

Emily Files
Four-year-old kindergarten students at Pilgrim Lutheran watch their teacher demonstrate how to use playground equipment. Pilgrim is part of the LUMIN network, which is offering in-person and virtual options this year.

Updated 4:17 p.m. CT

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a significant toll on school enrollment in Wisconsin – especially in the youngest grades.

Public schools lost about 25,000 students, or a 3% enrollment decline. That’s compared to roughly 0.5% declines the past two years. The biggest drop is in 4-year-old kindergarten. 4K numbers fell by about 16% this fall. Regular kindergarten enrollment fell by about 5%.

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction held a press briefing Thursday to go over the numbers. School Financial Services Director Dan Bush says the kindergarten drop is extraordinary, but not surprising. Other states are seeing similar trends.

>>Enrollment Is Dropping In Public Schools Around The Country

“In Wisconsin, 4K and kindergarten are not required for school attendance the way that grades 1-12 are. So parents did have the option of holding their students back this fall or choosing not to sign up for 4K,” Bush said. “Obviously, more of them did in comparison to past years.”

Dan Rossmiller, with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says the enrollment numbers show what he has been hearing from districts: parents of young children are keeping them home. 

“Whether that’s because schools are virtual and they don’t think that’s an effective way to learn, or whether schools are in person and they don’t want to send their young children because of health concerns, we don’t know for sure,” Rossmiller said. 

State funding for schools is linked to enrollment. Bush says there is a one-year reprieve built into the funding formula that will soften the financial impact this year. But unless the Legislature changes funding rules, Bush says “the steeper impact will be next year."

Anne Chapman, an education researcher with the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says the financial impact of this year’s enrollment could reverberate for years.

"If nothing is done, school budgets are going to hurt really badly," Chapman said. "At the same time, their costs are like – it’s an anomaly year in terms of their costs. They have costs related to the pandemic and all of the instructional pivots they’ve had to do...And then you pair that with the fact that state budgets are looking at potential shortfalls, and that's what funds schools. You put all that together and wonder what are the options for stabilizing school districts?"

Locally, Milwaukee Public Schools’ headcount dropped by 2,335 students this fall, compared to losses around 400 or 500 students in the previous two years. Half of this year’s drop was in 4K.

MPS is in virtual learning mode for the foreseeable future. Superintendent Keith Posley said at a school board meeting in September that some families are waiting for in-person instruction to resume before coming back to MPS.

>>School Year Starts Virtually For All MPS Students

“There are parents who are looking to a homeschool environment until we move into another phase,” Posley said. “And then there are families that has decided to go elsewhere … We are doing everything in our powers to make sure these students stay with us. We are constantly reaching out.”

Most districts statewide appear to have experienced at least a slight drop in students. In the Milwaukee area, Shorewood, Glendale and West Allis sustained larger declines, while districts including Elmbrook, Waukesha and Oak Creek-Franklin endured less of a hit.

When asked whether schools that started the year virtually saw larger enrollment losses than those that opted for in-person learning, Bush said DPI has not done that kind of analysis yet.

DPI also released numbers on independent charter schools and private schools that participate in publicly-funded parental choice programs. Both sectors had overall increases in enrollment but smaller increases compared to previous years.

Charter schools lost 16% of K4 students but made up those numbers with a 3.9% increase in grades 1-12.

Enrollment declined by 1.3% in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program after a couple years of small increases. The Wisconsin Parental Choice Program and Special Needs Scholarship Program both experienced large increases of 24.4% and 36.4%, respectively. They are the two newest voucher programs in the state.

Overall, private school choice enrollment was up about 6%, while public schools are down 3%. DPI has not yet released enrollment numbers for homeschool or overall private schools (schools with students who are not in parental choice programs).

Rossmiller, with the school boards association, says Wisconsin's enrollment decline raises concerns about children's wellbeing, including about 4- and 5-year-olds losing the benefits of early education.

"There are big concerns about where are these 20,000 students? Clearly, they didn't just fly off to the moon," Rossmiller said. "It remains to be seen just what educational opportunities they're receiving."

WUWM wants to hear from parents and guardians of kindergarten-age children about their education decisions this year. You can contact Emily Files at files[at]uwm.edu or by submitting a voice memo on the WUWM app. 

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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