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Enrollment in N.H. public schools continues to decline

The student population in New Hampshire is on the decline, driven by longterm demographic changes and accelerated by the pandemic.
Sarah Gibson
The enrollment decline seen this year is closer to pre-pandemic levels. It's due in part to New Hampshire’s low birth rates and aging population.

About 162,000 students are enrolled in New Hampshire’s K-12 public schools this year, down about 1% from last year. This decline continues a downward trend seen across two decades, driven in large part by the state's aging population and low birth rates.

There are now 161,755 students enrolled in the state’s traditional public schools, according to an annual count by the New Hampshire Department of Education. An additional 5,526 attend the state’s public charter schools. The modest drop in overall enrollment comes after a significant decline the year prior, when many families turned to private or homeschool options or kept their kids out of preschool and kindergarten during the pandemic.

The districts with the biggest student populations continue to be Manchester, Nashua, Bedford, Londonderry and Concord. Of those, Bedford is the only district that has grown in recent years.

The changes in New Hampshire’s student population has significant implications for towns, taxpayers and the students themselves.

Unless districts close school buildings or considerably shrink their budgets, lower enrollment does not translate to immediate savings on expenses like building maintenance, buses and staff. But it does result in less per-pupil aid from the state. This puts local taxpayers on the hook for covering more of the rising costs.

Recent funding from federal COVID relief packages and measures passed by the state Legislature have blunted the blow of these increases, allowing districts to pay for additional resources without dramatic tax hikes. But it’s not clear how state or local officials will approach these funding needs in the long term.

As the overall number of students decreases, the demographics of New Hampshire’s student body are also changing. Data from the state education department shows the student population is becoming more racially diverse every year, especially in its largest cities: Nashua, Manchester and Concord. In Manchester, for instance, the number of students of color has more than doubled in the last two decades. As some districts become more multicultural and multilingual, they have — with mixed success — tried to hire staff that reflect these changes.

Enrollment reports for each school are available on the Department of Education website.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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