District Trendline

June 2014: Student enrollment

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June 2014: Student enrollment

District Trendline, previously known as Teacher Trendline, provides actionable research to improve district personnel policies that will strengthen the teacher workforce. Want evidence-based guidance on policies and practices that will enhance your ability to recruit, develop, and retain great teachers delivered right to your inbox each month? Subscribe here.

The NCTQ Teacher Contract Database aims to cover as many large districts as possible out of the nearly 13,600 districts across the country. Since the Database launched in 2009, student enrollment has shifted in several states, in turn adding districts to the Database over the years in order to make sure we are covering the 50 largest districts in the U.S. and the largest district in each state.

In this month's Trendline, we examine districts with the most dramatic changes in student enrollment within the 50 largest districts in the country, from 2009 to 2011.[1]

Changes in student enrollment from 2009 to 2011

The top ten largest districts across the country remained the same from 2009 to 2011. Nevertheless, student enrollment has steadily decreased in the three largest districts- New York, Los Angeles and Chicago- while the other seven districts have increased in size overall during that same time.

New York City, despite a decrease of nearly 50,000 students from 2009 to 2011, dwarfs all other districts. Even with its loss in enrollment, in 2011 it had almost 50 percent more students than Los Angeles and more than double the number of students in Chicago.


In the five districts –Northside (TX), Wake County (NC), Orange County (FL), Fairfax County (VA) and Clark County (NV)– where student enrollment rose the most from 2009 to 2011, the increase was within a relatively small range, between 5,500 to 7,500 students. The same cannot be said about the top five districts where enrollments declined the most during that same period. These districts faced enrollment losses anywhere between 5,600 students in Cleveland to 46,000 students in New York City.

Those enrollment declines may sound steep, but it's important to keep district size in mind when considering those numbers. While New York City had the largest loss in absolute student enrollment from 2009 to 2011, it was only a five percent decline relative to its enrollment in fall 2009. The losses in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland,on the other hand, were much larger relative to their 2009 enrollment numbers.

Possible reasons for enrollment changes

Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and Philadelphia experienced some of the most dramatic declines in student enrollment of the 50 largest districts in the country.

One likely reason behind these declines lies in the population of school-age children in these cities. Using American Community Survey data, we find that the population of 5-19 years old in each of these cities declined from 2009 to 2011.

These cities' decrease in the population of school-age children puts these declines in student enrollment in an important context. While Los Angeles's student enrollment decreased by two percent from 2009 to 2011, the population of school-age children in the city declined by four percent in that same time. The same can be said for Cleveland and New York City,where declines in student enrollment were slightly less than the declines in school-age population.

Declines in school-age populations do not, however, explain all of the student enrollment losses in Detroit and Philadelphia. Detroit took a bigger hit to its student enrollment than its loss in school-age population would suggest. Philadelphia, however, is particularly startling; its relative decline in student enrollment was three times the city's relative decline in school-age population.

Charter school enrollment is another probable explanation behind some of the decline in student enrollment in these particular cities. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, these five districts are among those where public charter schools educate at least 10 percent of school-age students in the district.

Since 2009, charter school enrollment has increased for all five districts, particularly in Los Angeles and New York City, where the numbers rose by 31,000 and 18,000 students, respectively. Philadelphia's decline in student enrollment in traditional public schools could partially be explained by the nearly 11,000 student increase in charter school enrollments from 2009 to 2011.

Interestingly, Detroit —with an increase of about 2,000 charter school students— had the lowest increase in charter school enrollments relative to this set of districts. Given that traditional public school enrollments declined more than the city's drop in school-age population, these numbers may be surprising for those who would assume that charters were the biggest factor drawing students away from Detroit's traditional public school system.


As Detroit illustrates, there are many factors influencing student enrollment trends. While charter schools are growing across the country, it is assumed by some that this growth is the main cause behind the decline in traditional public school enrollment. We see here that is not always the case.

[1] The most recent information available from the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES) is used for student enrollment and national enrollment ranks.