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California school enrollment falls even after new TK grade boosts enrollment

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(The Center Square) – Following years of tumbling California enrollment, vast expansion of a new grade before kindergarten is finally slowing the state’s enrollment decline — for now. Because public school funding is dependent on enrollment and attendance, adding thousands of new transitional kindergarten students, who tend to have the highest attendance rate of any grade, can substantially increase school funding.

“I am very grateful to see this exciting outlook for our earliest learners,” said California State Superintendent Tony Thurmond in a statement. “We know how important it is for support for every child to read by third grade, and a critical part of that effort is to make sure that our youngest students are supported to have healthy development in their early years. “

While there were 6,163,001 TK-12 students enrolled for 2019-2020 there were only 5,837,690 students enrolled for 2023-2024, a decline of 325,311, or a little less than the size of an entire statewide grade today. Though California teacher numbers have been released beyond the 2018-2019 school year, given that California is on an up to 15,600 teacher hiring spree to meet requirements for reduced student-to-teacher ratios, it appears likely the state’s number of teachers has continued to grow as its number of students declines.

Before the pandemic, TK enrollment was 88,883, a figure that declined to just 68,701 during the 2020-2021 school year. Through TK eligibility expansion in the 2023-2024 school year to children who turn five between Sept. 2 and April 2, TK enrollment expanded to 151,491. Next year, TK will be expanded to June 2 birthdays, while in fall 2025 all four year olds will be eligible for the program.

According to the non-partisan Public Policy Center of California, TK “does not appear to boost test scores” but does somewhat improve “social-emotional learning” outcomes over time for English-speaking students.

Kindergarten enrollment declined 25% last year to 370,750, in part due to decline in child population but mostly due to eligible children enrolling in TK instead; kindergarten enrollment has been recovering after many parents stopped sending their children to class during the pandemic — dropping from 523,009 in 2019-2020 to 462,172 in 2020-2021 — but in the long-term is still likely to decline as the state’s births continue to drop. The state’s combined enrollment for TK and kindergarten this year is still lower than the state’s kindergarten enrollment for 2019-2020.

With much of California public school funding determined by average daily attendance, TK can temporarily bolster the number of students, and thus funding, school districts receive, but if population trends continue, this reprieve will be only temporary.

In the face of an up to $80 billion deficit, California Governor Gavin Newsom still plans on spending approximately $23,940 per TK-14 student per his May budget proposal, as Prop. 98 requires 39% of the state’s general fund revenue to be spent on TK-14. However, given California’s declining youth population and growing elderly population — one-in-four Californians will be 60 or older by 2030 — the state may eventually have no choice but to shift earmarked education funding towards retirees.