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N.H.'s pandemic-driven enrollment drops could shape coming education policy moves

The student population in New Hampshire is on the decline, driven by longterm demographic changes and accelerated by the pandemic.
Sarah Gibson
The student population in New Hampshire is on the decline, driven by longterm demographic changes and accelerated by the pandemic.

For decades, the number of students in New Hampshire public schools has been shrinking. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically accelerated that trend. Now, as lawmakers, educators and advocates renew the debate over how to use tax dollars to educate New Hampshire children, the pandemic's impact on student enrollment could shape major policy decisions.

The vast majority of kids in the state still attend traditional public schools, but new data from the New Hampshire Department of Education analyzed by NHPR confirms what many suspected: amidst COVID disruptions of the past two years, more families turned to private schools and homeschooling. Some students left school altogether.

In the first full year of the pandemic, public school enrollment dropped by over four percent, far higher than a normal year. And even as schools fully reopened and tried to return to normal this fall, enrollment remained below pre-pandemic levels.

This mirrors trends elsewhere in New England and the country, though New Hampshire fared better than some of the country’s largest school districts, which saw declines for a second year in a row.

Long term enrollment declines, driven by demographics, accelerated during the pandemic

New Hampshire’s student population declined by 18.5 percent over the past 20 years. The trend reflects demographic changes across northern New England and other rural areas of the country: the population is aging and people of child-bearing age are having fewer kids.

Until the pandemic, enrollment decline in New Hampshire was relatively slow but steady: between 0 and 2% each year. But in 2020, enrollment declined by 4.5%, about 8,200 fewer students in one year. Public school leaders hoped the numbers would return to normal this year, but in fall 2021, overall public school enrollment in New Hampshire barely increased.

Long term enrollment patterns varied by district. Some, such as the wealthy suburban districts of Windham, Bedford, and Hollis-Brookline, bucked state trends and saw their student population increase. Others – including Somersworth, Berlin, and Manchester – saw declines higher than those seen statewide.

The effect of the pandemic also varied by region and type of school. Some recreational areas with large second home communities, such as Waterville Valley, saw their local enrollment increase in 2020 as more families moved in. And the state’s online charter school, the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), saw a 55% increase in full-time enrollment during the pandemic, as more students sought out remote options.

Amidst COVID-19 and school uncertainty, more families turned to private and homeschool

As in the rest of the country, interest in homeschooling in New Hampshire exploded during the pandemic. The number of students who registered for the first time as homeschoolers in 2020 was up by close to 50 percent. Interest has decreased this year but remains higher than before the pandemic.

Private schools also got a pandemic bump, particularly among younger grades. In 2020, the Catholic Diocese of Manchester launched a recruitment campaign and offered scholarships to new students. Many Catholic schools increased enrollment, reversing a decline seen prior to the pandemic.

The state’s new Education Freedom Accounts may have contributed to lower public school enrollment this year, but only by a small margin. The program, established in 2021, gives state money originally intended for public schools to low and moderate income families to pay for non-public school options (such as tuition for private school or costs from home education).

According to the state, about 500 students left their local public schools during the pandemic and are now enrolled in the Education Freedom Account program. It’s unclear whether these students would have attended public school were it not for Education Freedom Accounts, and the number remains only a small fraction of overall enrollment.

The increased interest in alternatives to public school explains part of the enrollment decline. So do long term demographic trends. But even with these factors, public school enrollment is lower than expected. It’s likely that some kids still aren’t accounted for, and education officials say we may never know where they went.

A look at 2020 enrollment among New Hampshire’s youngest kids suggests that some families opted out of formal education altogether. Preschool and kindergarten are optional in New Hampshire. Prior to the pandemic, both public preschool and kindergarten were seeing increased interest. After COVID-19 hit, enrollment among New Hampshire’s youngest kids plummeted.

Some families decided it wasn’t worth the COVID risks, remote learning, and other pandemic-related disruptions. School leaders say lower kindergarten and preschool attendance could have long-term consequences, as some of this year’s first graders didn’t get the level of socialization and support they would have by being in school last year.

In 2021, kindergarten and preschool rebounded to a large extent, but they haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

What enrollment trends mean for school budgets and education policy debates.

In a typical year, the state’s funding formula sends money to school districts based on their student enrollment. As this declines, so does state aid.

But while the overall student population declines, education costs are rising. In many cases, district expenses - such as heating costs, special education expenses, health insurance for teachers - are going up. Small drops in class size rarely prompt schools to lay off staff or close schools, though in recent years, Manchester, Berlin, and other districts with dramatic declines have closed school buildings.

Most school expenses are paid for by local taxpayers, not the state. Rather than savings, taxpayers in towns with declining enrollments could see their property tax rates increase.

The declining enrollment and rising per-pupil costs come amidst a tense debate among policy makers over the role of public schools in New Hampshire, the future of school choice, and how education should be funded.

The majority of kids here still go to public school – between 85 and 90 percent, according to data collected by the state.

Many Democratic lawmakers and public school advocates argue that despite enrollment declines, traditional public schools remain the heart of many communities and should receive more funding from the state.

But many Republicans, including Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, disagree. They say the standard method of sending taxpayer dollars solely to public schools isn’t working. They’re pushing for funding to follow students to the educational setting of their choice, be it private school, homeschool, or a public school outside their home district.

And they point to enrollment declines as further evidence that public schools need to figure out how to adapt to a shrinking population, regardless of whether school choice programs expand in the coming years.

Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would require schools to maintain a report with enrollment and cost-per-pupil projections. But population trends by town can be unpredictable, and pandemic-related migration to some areas may complicate this further.

Last year, lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill that sends districts that saw pandemic enrollment declines the same level of state aid they received in 2019, prior to the pandemic. As a result, districts aren’t yet experiencing the true financial fallout of pandemic enrollment declines. It’s up to Gov. Chris Sununu and the Department of Education to decide whether to extend that policy next year.

A note on the data: There are several ways the New Hampshire Department of Education collects student enrollment data. For this analysis, NHPR used October enrollment counts, which districts and private schools report to the state. Because of homeschool reporting laws, the state does not have a full count of the number of children who are homeschooling. Its best estimate is based on the number of families registering as new homeschoolers each year.

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