3 reasons district public school enrollment is on the decline

Written by The Likely Voter

June 22, 2023

Utah’s enrollment in district public schools is declining, even while the state population is skyrocketing. What explains these seemingly contradictory trends? There could be many factors, but three key trends stand out as likely contributors.  

1. Utah is leading on providing education options 

The proliferation of education options – public charter schools, virtual schools and curriculum for a home school or microschool – has made alternatives to district schools more accessible to parents in Utah than ever before. Soon-to-be implemented programs, like the Utah Fits All Scholarship created in the most recent legislative session, will bring education options that were once too expensive within reach for more parents. Parents are able to analyze their student’s educational track and make decisions that will more adequately assist their learning style and interests. 

Sandy Grant, a home-school mom of six and one of the leaders of Utah Homeschool Network, a social media networking group, opted to pull her kids out of a district public school in 2004, before these programs were available.

When asked in an interview with Sutherland what prompted her family to choose home schooling, Grant cited the flexibility homeschooling allows to better meet her children’s needs.  

I was able to allow my son who struggled to learn to read the opportunity to move ahead in math and science while moving at a slower pace through his reading instruction,” Grant said. “At the same time, I was able to spend a ton more one-on-one time on his reading instruction than would be possible in a class of 30 kids. I was also able to teach subjects like science and history in ways that appealed to each student.” 

Grant pointed out that home schooling also fosters individual children’s curiosity – a powerful factor to promote learning. 

“Homeschooling gives a lot more time for them to pursue their own interests,” Grant said. “My oldest son was able to delve into his interests in math and computers from a young age.” 

Education alternatives allow more families to evaluate their options, like the Grant family did, and seek out the best possible educational outcome for their own children. 

2. Fertility rates are declining 

Sutherland’s family policy fellow, Krisana Finlay, noted in her Insights piece that district public school enrollment is declining in part because Utahns aren’t having enough kids. 

“Over the last 50 years, Utah’s fertility rate dropped 42.4%,” wrote Finlay. Further, “Utah’s decline in fertility rate has reached critical levels. Utah isn’t meeting the quota to replace its population.”  

This decline in fertility rate has several factors, Finlay noted, but economic trends and cultural views on marriage may be playing a large part. 

3. The pandemic 

When the COVID pandemic shut down schools across the nation, parents were put in the position of having to lead home instruction. As schools began to open back up, health precautions and other political decisions led some parents to continue their child’s education at home. 

The New York Times wrote that “experts point to two potential causes: Some parents became so fed up with remote instruction or mask mandates that they started home-schooling their children or sending them to private or parochial schools that largely remained open during the pandemic.” 

After more than a year of COVID-related regulations, many parents realized the impact that remote learning and other restrictions in schools were having on their kids, according to a Los Angeles Times piece posted on EducationWeek. By moving to alternative forms of education, like a private school or homeschool, parents were able to help their kids overcome challenges in their education. 

Utah’s declining district public school enrollment has several contributing factors, but it may not be a bad thing overall. As Utah policymakers continue diversifying education opportunities, parents are put in the driver’s seat and are able to seek out an education that is tailored to suit their child’s needs. 

For a more in-depth perspective on this article, read our Insights piece here.

Takeaways: the most important things voters need to know. For civically engaged citizens.  

  • Due in part to Utah providing diverse education options, district public school enrollment is declining.
  • Economic and cultural impacts are bringing down fertility rates in Utah.
  • The pandemic quickened the pace of the availability of education options.

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