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Colorado projects student enrollment won’t recoup pandemic losses

Close-up of the side of the face of a masked elementary student, sitting at a classroom desk. In the background are two other students, one wearing a mask.

Colorado school enrollment dipped slightly this school year and state leaders expect enrollment to remain flat for the next couple years.

Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Colorado school enrollment is essentially flat this year, with far fewer students showing up to class now than before the pandemic.

School leaders had hoped enrollment would rebound after the highly disrupted 2020-21 school year, when more than 20,000 students failed to show up in the state’s K-12 schools. But preliminary enrollment numbers shared with lawmakers show that isn’t happening.

Instead, 843,264 students enrolled in Colorado’s public schools this year, a 0.3% decrease from last year, according to documents presented Friday to lawmakers during a Joint Budget Committee hearing. More detailed information from the state’s October student count will be released in January.

State analysts expect that the mostly flat enrollment could turn into a long-term trend. Their projections for the next two school years now foresee a slight increase cancelled out by a slight decrease the following year. 

The causes seem to be complex. Some families may have put their children in private schools or decided to home school them, but that’s not the only reason. State analysts attribute a mix of lower birth rates, less economic opportunity, and high housing prices pushing people out as reasons for lower school enrollment.

Metro Denver, the Southwest Mountain, San Luis Valley, Pueblo, and the Eastern Plains regions have seen the biggest percentage decline in student populations. 

Statewide, kindergarten enrollment increased this year by 6% as parents enrolled some of the 6-year-olds they kept home last year. As a result, the state expects kindergarten enrollment to decline next year. This year, the proportion of students not enrolling in grades 1 through 12 declined about 0.8%, or about 6,250 students.

With enrollment projected to increase slightly next school year, the state expects to send schools about $186 million in the 2022-23 school year to account for inflation and enrollment growth, according to the committee documents. Local governments also will need to cover a greater share of educating students, an estimated $77 million increase.

But much will depend on whether lawmakers offer further pandemic relief. Last year, Democrats ensured enrollment dips wouldn’t mean less state funding for school districts. 

Last school year enrollment declined sharply from 2019-20. Colorado school districts reported a 3.3% overall enrollment decline, as well as decreases in the number of students eligible for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. Both the numbers impact school funding.

The Democrats who control the state legislature may once again seek to prevent funding cuts based on enrollment declines. Republicans have raised concerns, though, about paying for students who don’t exist. 

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