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Op-Ed: Illinois public schools lose 127,000 students since pandemic

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Recent NBC News analysis found 87% of American children were enrolled in public school in 2022, compared to 90.7% in 2012. That trend holds true closer to home, too.

Here in Illinois, enrollment in our public schools has dropped from 1.98 million in 2019 to 1.85 million in the 2022-2023 school year, the latest data available.

It’s clear the number of kids enrolled in public schools in Illinois continues to decline. However, the Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t include data beyond the 2019-2020 school year if you want to see what percentage of school-age children are enrolled in public vs. non-public schools. With incomplete data, it’s difficult to know if Illinois’ public school enrollment decline is caused by families leaving the state or choosing private school alternatives, or if Illinois’ birth rate is the culprit.

What we do know is that, from 2021-2022, Illinois lost 37,217 residents ages 5-18. When the 2023 figures come out later this year, we’ll see if the state continued to lose school-age children to other states.

Chicago Public Schools alone is down over 44,000 students compared with pre-COVID numbers, a 12% decrease. The state’s second-largest district, U-46 in Elgin, saw enrollment decline 10% since 2019. Enrollment in public schools in Springfield, the largest school district downstate, dropped 8%.

These trends are consistent with what’s happening across the U.S., according to research from the Brookings Institute: “Over the pandemic, about 12% of public elementary schools and 9% of middle schools experienced enrollment declines of 20% or more.”

Research from the American Enterprise Institute showed from 2020-2022, school districts that returned to classrooms sooner did a better job of retaining students. “Districts that offered mostly in-person classes better retained students and even saw enrollment rebound this past school year. Mostly remote school districts saw larger declines during the first two years of the pandemic and those declines continued in 2022,” Illinois Policy Institute policy analyst Hannah Schmid wrote of the research. Illinois was one of just 19 states that experienced a net 3% or greater decline in enrollment from 2020-2022, among the 46 states analyzed in AEI’s Return2Learn Tracker.

So where are these students going? Are they moving out of state? Overall population loss is a contributing factor.

Are kids leaving public schools for private schools? The Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t have complete data on private school enrollment, or the number of families who are homeschooling.

What we do know is Illinois’ now-defunct Invest in Kids program, which granted tax credit scholarships to low-income families who wanted to send their children to private school, could not keep up with demand. In 2023, the program’s final year, over 15,000 students received scholarships, with 24,000 more on the wait list.

Illinois has traditionally been a great place to learn. People flock to many of Chicago’s suburbs to enjoy top schools, as well as high-performing downstate districts. Our vibrant university system benefits from a thriving in-state K-12 school system.

Continued declines in enrollment in our public schools is a signal leaders should care about, because it reaffirms the threat of continued population loss. That will affect our future workforce, placing limits on our potential for future innovation and investment in the state’s economy.