Demographics, the pandemic, and the bubble class: Public schools continue to serve the vast majority of New Hampshire’s children

New Hampshire’s student population has been steadily declining since its peak in the early 2000s, according to data released by the New Hampshire Department of Education in November. Experts attribute the decline to a number of factors, including demographic changes and a recent drop in enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the steady decline in the number of students, their needs are changing, which will require planning and consideration by lawmakers and school and community leaders; additionally, state projections suggest that the number of children in the state will remain steady through 2040.

Key Takeaways:

  • There were 159,334 students enrolled in public schools (excluding charter schools) as of October 1, 2021. That is 1,381 students fewer than 2020 (approximately 1%);
  • The number of children in New Hampshire declined by 30,000 between 2010 and 2019, and the number of public school students declined by about the same amount;
  • NH’s central planning office projects that the number of children in the state will remain steady through at least 2040, with minimal decline in the child population; 
  • There has been a gradual increase in the proportion of students who qualify for school meal programs, and those who receive services (special education, English Language, and/or reading); and, 
  • The vast majority (88%) of students continue to choose public schools, even with stark growth in the number of nonpublic options, including homeschooling and private schools, and new incentives to leave public schools in the form of the state’s new school voucher program. 

Enrollment fluctuations, both pandemic- and demographic-related, pose short and long-term challenges for taxpayers, the state, and local school districts. State funding for public schools, in the form of adequacy aid, is directly tied to student enrollment, creating resource hurdles for communities. Additionally, fluctuations in student counts pose logistical considerations for school leaders and educators. Lawmakers have pursued short-term solutions that have preserved some of the state funding for public schools, and are beginning to explore longer term solutions. 

“Nine out of every 10 children in the state attend public schools,” said Christina Pretorius, Reaching Higher NH’s Policy Director. “Therefore, it is critical that lawmakers, school board members, and other decision makers ensure that our public schools have the resources they need to meet the needs of all of our students, and that every child in New Hampshire has access to a high-quality public education, regardless of the demographic shifts in the state.” 

Overall Enrollment and the Bubble Class

Student enrollment has been decreasing in New Hampshire since the early 2000s, when over 200,000 students attended the state’s public schools. Every year, roughly 2,000 more students graduate high school than enter kindergarten or first grade, as shown in the chart below. 

In 2017, there was a jump in student enrollment as a result of a law change that counted each kindergartener as one fully enrolled student. Prior to 2018, the state counted all children enrolled in public kindergarten as ½ of an enrolled student (for school funding purposes).

Between 2019 and 2020, the first “full” year of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment dropped by roughly 3-4%, a sharper drop than previous years. School leaders and state officials point to three causes of the decline:

  • Naturally occurring enrollment decline, as there are fewer children entering early grades (typically around 1% annually); 
  • Withdrawal of students who switched from public schools to private or homeschool options; and, 
  • The “redshirting” of the state’s youngest learners, who deferred a year and later re-enrolled in their public schools.

Every year for over a decade, student enrollment dropped by about 1%. Since 2017, there have been fewer students entering kindergarten and first grade than graduating high school, one of the leading factors that has contributed to an overall decline in enrollment. 

Between 2019 and 2020, there were 6,569 fewer students in New Hampshire public schools (excluding charter schools). These losses were concentrated in middle schools (grades 5-8), and enrollment losses continued in 2021. However, the number of elementary school children (kindergarten through fourth grade) has rebounded slightly, creating a “bubble class” of students who will move through public schools in the next 8-12 years. 

Changing Demographics and Looking Ahead at Student Enrollment

Between 2010 and 2020, New Hampshire’s total population grew by about 4.6%. However, in that same time period, the number of children under the age of 18 declined by roughly 10%. 

According to the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute, Census data indicate that the child population declined by approximately 55,000 children between 2000 and 2019. The decline in student enrollment has mirrored this trend: Between 2011 and 2019, student enrollment dropped by 21,991 students, or 11.6%. The smaller drop in student enrollment suggests that population declines are sharper among younger children who may not have entered school yet. 

There are a number of theories as to why the child population in New Hampshire is shrinking: fewer children being born per family, the exodus of recent high school and college graduates to other states, the lack of affordable housing and the growth of age-restricted housing, and more. 

The NH Office of Energy and Planning projects that the number of New Hampshire children ages 0-19 will hold steady between 2020 and 2040, suggesting that there may be some leveling off of student enrollment fluctuations in the coming years. Regional changes are likely, with increased or steady enrollment in the southern and south-eastern counties and declines in enrollment in the North Country and western counties. 

Increased Student Need

Despite the decline in the number of students attending public schools, the needs of those students have grown and become more complex. The chart below shows that since 2011, the proportion of students navigating poverty (measured by participation in the federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch program) has grown from 20% in 2011 to nearly 30% in 2019. 

Since the pandemic, the proportion of students who participate in the program has declined substantially (depicted by the dotted teal line); however, it is widely thought that the number of children navigating poverty has grown substantially more than the school meal program participation shows due to pandemic-related economic conditions. 

Similarly, the concentration of students who receive special education services (the red line) has also grown modestly, from about 17% in 2011 to nearly 20% in 2021. These needs may involve more complex services and accommodations, as the growth of the state’s “catastrophic aid” fund supports fewer students but covers more of the cost of services. 

The green and purple lines represent the concentrations of students who receive English Language Learner services and those who did not score “proficient” on their third-grade reading assessments in the prior year. These two measures are collected by the NH Department of Education as metrics to fund the state’s public schools, and are some of the only publicly reported statewide metrics of student need that have been consistently collected. These measurements have also modestly grown since 2011, but remain relatively low. 

Considerations for Policymakers

Enrollment fluctuations pose an increasing challenge for taxpayers, the state, and local school districts. Because New Hampshire allocates state funding based on the number of students who attend schools, sharp declines in enrollment lead to sharp declines in funding for public schools without intervention from lawmakers. Similarly, abrupt changes in student need create resource hurdles for schools, like we’ve seen with the drop in the count of students who qualify for Free and Reduced Price Lunch. 

Lawmakers have intervened during the pandemic to cushion school districts from large funding losses through short-term solutions. Hold harmless provisions for both overall enrollment and Free and Reduced Price Lunch have preserved adequacy funding through the current school year. They are exploring longer-term solutions