School District of Osceola County
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AS&U 100

Sept. 22, 2022

As the Baby Boom generation worked its way through the education system, student enrollment in U.S. public schools grew steadily and peaked at about 46 million in 1971. In the 1970s, the birth rate had slowed, and by 1984, the number of students attending public schools bottomed out at about 39.2 million, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

But in the decades that followed, the numbers have steadily increased; by 2019, nearly 50.8 million students were receiving their education in the nation’s public schools.

Then came Covid. 

When it became clear in March 2020 that Covid-19 was a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease, normal life in the United States ground to a halt, including the nation’s education institutions. Nearly all schools and universities abruptly shut down in-person instruction for the rest of the 2019-20 school year, and when it was time for classes to resume for the 2020-21 school year, many of those students did not come back. Some may have transferred to private schools, some may have switched to homeschooling, and some may have fallen through the cracks and were not part of any education program.

The result was that from 2019-20 to 2020-21, the number of students enrolled in U.S. public schools fell by 1.4 million—a 2.7% drop, from 50.8 million to 49.4 million, about the same enrollment total for 2009-10.

The decline affected every region of the country—year-to-year enrollment fell in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Oregon reported the largest percentage drop—8.1%, from 610,649 to 560,917, and Texas had the largest drop—122,592, from 5,495,398 students to 5,372,806, the NCES says.

The shrinking enrollment numbers also affected the districts in the AS&U 100 list of the largest U.S. public school systems. Their numbers declined at a greater rate than the national figure–3.4%. The 100 largest districts in 2020-21 accounted for about 10.7 million students; those districts had 11.1 million students in 2019-20.

(Note: To remain consistent with lists from previous years, the AS&U 100 uses data from the California Department of Education for California districts instead of the NCES; the California numbers include charter school enrollment, and the federal numbers do not.)

Widespread decline

All but four of the AS&U 100 reported enrollment declines in 2020-21. Enrollment numbers in five districts dropped by more than 10,000 from fall 2019 to fall 2020: New York City (-37,730); Los Angeles Unified (-21,941); Houston (-13,118), Miami-Dade County (-13,046), and Clark County, Nev., (-12,627).

On a percentage basis, 15 of the 100 largest districts had enrollment declines of 5% or more—nine of those were in Texas: El Paso (8.3%), Austin (7.5%), Fort Worth (7.3%), North East (6.3%), Houston (6.2%), Aldine (5.9%), Dallas (5.7%), Lewisville (5.4%) and Round Rock (5.2%). The other districts with large percentage declines: Mesa Unified (7.6%), Albuquerque (6.0%), Metro Nashville (6.0%), Douglas County (6.4%), DeKalb County (5.4%), Winston-Salem Forsyth County (5.0%)

The four districts with enrollment increases were Frisco (1.3%) and Katy (0.9%) in Texas, Pasco, County, Fla., (0.6%) and Forsythe County, Ga. (1.2%). In comparison, 63 of the 100 largest districts in 2019-20 reported year-to-year enrollment increases.

Enrollment figures are critical for most public school systems because they determine how much funding they receive. The large amounts of federal Covid relief funding may enable some school districts to avoid or delay financial difficulties in the short run, but if student numbers do not rebound after the threat of Covid has passed, schools may face budget problems.

The three states with the largest overall population and the most public school students also have the most representation on the AS&U 100. Texas, Florida and California claim 46 spots on the list. Texas has 20 districts in the AS&U 100 that account for more than 1.5 million students. Florida has fewer districts on the list—15—but because those school systems are countywide entities, they account for more students—more than 2 million. Five of the 10 largest school districts are in Florida. The 11 California districts in the AS&U 100 account for 1.2 million students. Only one other state accounted for more than 1 million students in the AS&U 100—New York. It has only one district on the list, but New York City sits on top of the list as the largest school district in the nation with 1,094, 138 students, according to city figures.

Because school districts have been formed in a variety of ways—some coincide with municipal boundaries, some stretch across multiple jurisdictions, some encompass entire counties (and one encompasses an entire state), some cover only elementary grades or only secondary grades—the size of a school district and whether it is large enough to be one of the nation’s largest is somewhat arbitrary. Twenty-four states do not have any districts among the 100 largest in 2020-21.

Long-term changes

Despite the widespread 2020 declines in enrollment, the list of districts on the AS&U 100 remained stable. Only one district from 2019-20—Santa Ana Unified in California—dropped off the list in 2020-21. Added to the 2020-21 list is Charleston County, S.C.

To see the significant enrollment changes that have reshaped which school systems are among the nation’s largest districts, one needs to look at the numbers over many years. The number of students attending schools in 2020 in the 100 largest districts is 27% greater than the number enrolled in those districts in 1990. Twenty-three of those districts have doubled their size over those 30 years—including eight districts in Texas: Frisco, Cypress-Fairbanks, Conroe, Round Rock, Lewisville, Fort Bend, Northside and Klein.

The district among the 100 largest that has by far grown the fastest in the last three decades is the Frisco district, about 30 miles north of Dallas. Its 2020 enrollment of 63,493 is more than 48 times larger than its 1990 enrollment of 1,310 students.

Other districts in the AS&U 100 with tremendous enrollment growth over 30 years: Loudoun County, Va., which has more than quintupled in size from 14,485 to 81,066; Douglas County, Colo., which is nearly five times the size it was in 1990 (13,125 to 62,979); and Osceola County, Fla., where enrollment has more than tripled to 68,640 from 19,514.

The Clark County (Nev.) district, already a large system in 1990, has seen its enrollment figures mushroom by nearly 200,000 students over 30 years, and is the nation’s fifth-largest district with 319,292 students.

 Kennedy, senior editor, can be reached at [email protected].

Side: Higher Education: Institutions with largest enrollment, fall 2020

The rush to virtual learning and online instruction in March 2020 accelerated a trend that was already being seen at many colleges and universities. Thousands of students had already taken advantage of the flexibility and accessibility of online courses—in fall 2019, the four institutions with the most students enrolled were primarily online programs.

When Covid-19 prevented most college students from continuing on-campus classes and in many cases forced them to leave their campus housing, virtual courses became a more feasible alternative for those unwilling to wait out the uncertainty of whether campuses would be allowed to return to more normal operations.

So it’s not a surprise that in fall 2020 institutions that cater to online students were once again at the top of the list of the schools with the largest enrollments. Western Governor’s University, Southern New Hampshire University, Grand Canyon University and Liberty University reported having the most students enrolled, and each of them had a significant increase in their numbers compared with pre-Covid numbers of the previous year.

Several other institutions among those with the largest enrollments also are primarily geared toward online students—University of Phoenix, University of Maryland Global Campus, Arizona State University Digital Immersion, and the American Public University System.

One institution that showed up for the first time near the top of the enrollment list is Dallas College, with more than 74,000 students. The seemingly large enrollment increase results from renaming the Dallas County Community College District and combining the enrollments from its seven campuses into one.

Overall, higher education enrollment in fall 2020 experienced a decline similar to what K-12 districts experienced. NCES figures show that in fall 2020, the number of students enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions was 19,355,811, compared with 20,006,901 in fall 2019.

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