Why More Wisconsin Schools Are Enrolling Fewer Students
Students entering their senior year of high school in the fall of 2019 appear to be among the largest classes in Wisconsin for the foreseeable future. At a statewide level, there are generally fewer students in all preceding grades, a broad decline in enrollment that has continued since the turn of the century.
While this trend is not universal across all grade levels, locations and racial groups, many public school districts across Wisconsin will see fewer students entering their doors.
Historically, statewide public school enrollment peaked in 1971 with almost a million students, when much of the baby-boom generation was completing high school. Student population peaked again in 1997 when children of the baby boomers — aka the millennials — were in the midst of their peak school years.
By the end of the 1990s, though, statewide enrollment fell as older millennials were graduating high school and a smaller generation of students started entering kindergarten. And as the new century began, this decline in the number of students in Wisconsin would continue.
One change in the educational system would offset this decline, to a degree. By the mid-2000s, an increasing number of school districts around the state were adding four-year-old kindergarten programs. This additional group of students meant that enrollment in many school districts did not decline as much as it would have otherwise. Overall, the 4K through 12th grade student population held steady from the 2006-07 to 2012-13 school years. However, that number has declined each year since.
Over the past 13 years, the enrollment decline in grades 4K-12 was 2%, while grades K-12 dropped by 5%. Elementary and middle school enrollment has fallen by 2%, while the greatest decline has occurred at the high school level, with more than a 10% decline in grades 9-12. The only group to see an enrollment increase since 2006 was grade 4K, which grew by 113%.
The following chart shows the percent change in statewide public school enrollment by grade grouping (4K, K-5, 6-8 and 9-12) since the 2006-07 school year.
Public school districts can be defined in terms of their location as urban, suburban, town or rural. By these definitions, trends in enrollment are not uniform across Wisconsin. The following chart shows the percent change in student population by type of district since the 2006-07 school year.
The only category that has increased enrollment is suburban districts, which have grown by 6.7%. The number of students at Milwaukee Public Schools and Racine Unified School District have declined significantly over the last 13 years, dropping by 20% and 22%, respectively. These declines are due to fewer births in these cities and an increase in private school attendance. Excluding these two districts, urban school district enrollment has generally remained steady. Town districts have declined to a slight degree, by 1.3%. Meanwhile, rural districts have seen the greatest loss of students, with a decline of 8%.
The following map shows the location type of the district and percent change in enrollment between the 2006-07 and 2018-19 school years.
Across Wisconsin, trends related to people moving to and from other states or nations, an aging population, and falling birth rates all affect the number of school age children attending public schools.
The number of people moving in and out of a state is driven in large part by age as well as social and economic factors. In the 1990s, Wisconsin experienced a strong growth of 227,637 people moving into the state, followed by a smaller increase in the 2000s with 79,938 newcomers.
The following chart shows the number of people moving into and out of Wisconsin by age from 2010 to 2015. During this time, the state experienced a net loss of 16,027 residents.
Although there was an increase of school-age children moving to Wisconsin between 2010 and 2015, there was a decrease of people ages 20-34. This drop will have an important impact on the future number of children born in the state, as women in that age group are in their prime childbearing years.
The age structure of a population can be represented by a population pyramid. This chart shows the age structure for Wisconsin by age, sex and race/ethnicity as of 2010.
Wisconsin's population pyramid for people of color contrasts with the one for non-Hispanic whites. The people of color pyramid is typical of a growing population, with most people concentrated in the younger age groups. Subsequently, students of color can be expected to make up a growing proportion of the number of children in Wisconsin's schools.
In the 1990s, as a smaller population of women aged into their childbearing years, the number of births in Wisconsin decreased. However, birth rates rose in the 2000s, increasing until 2007. Then another decline in births occurred as a result of women postponing childbirth, likely due to the Great Recession. And although the economy has shown signs of recovery over the ensuing decade, births in Wisconsin have not rebounded.
There are differences in birth rates between racial/ethnic groups, as defined by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and based on the race/ethnicity of the mother.
Births to non-Hispanic white women remained relatively steady between 2000 and 2007 and they have decreased each year since 2008. Since the turn of the century, non-Hispanic white births declined by 16.4%, with 55,381 in 2000 compared to 46,298 in 2017. Still, the largest proportion of births in 2017 were by non-Hispanic white women, at 71% of all births. Similarly, births to American Indian women declined by 16.9% from 2000 to 2017.
Over the same time period, births to non-Hispanic black women increased by 5.7%, and births to Hispanic women increased by 42%. The percent of births to Asian women grew the most, with an increase of 55%.
In sum, Wisconsin's population is growing older. While the baby-boom generation continues to age in place, their children, although now in prime childbearing years, are having fewer children or delaying childbirth. Meanwhile, the current age structure and birth rates of people of color are likely to account for a relatively larger proportion of future births.
When it comes to racial/ethnic differences within Wisconsin's public schools, the number of non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black and American Indian students have declined over the past 13 years, while the number of Asian and Hispanic students have increased.
The following chart shows the percent change in statewide public school enrollment by race/ethnicity since the 2006-07 school year.
The number of non-Hispanic white students has declined by 12% in the last 13 years. Non-Hispanic black and American Indian students have also declined in this same time period, by 15% and 25%, respectively.
On the other hand, the number of Asian students has risen by 13%, while the number of Hispanic students has increased by 69%. Additionally, in the 2010-11 school year, Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction provided families the opportunity to report students as “two or more races” — over the last 9 years, this category saw an increase of 168%.
These individual changes among different groups in different places add up to a few broader trends: Wisconsin's overall population is growing older, while experiencing a declining number of births. In turn, fewer students are attending public schools.
Suburban districts have seen growth over the past 13 years, while the student population in most urban districts has remained steady. However, enrollment in many town and rural districts has been declining and is likely to continue to decline. The only places where Wisconsin may see student population increasing are in suburban districts and in those with larger Asian and Hispanic student populations.
For the foreseeable future, it is likely that enrollment will remain steady or decline in many of Wisconsin's public schools.
Sarah Kemp is a researcher with the school enrollment projections program at the University of Wisconsin Applied Population Laboratory and the UW-Madison Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, and studies school demography with a focus on rural schools. She is also a member of the Lakeland Union High School Board of Education.