Utah's public school enrollment increases, bucking national trend

Utah gained 7,925 students from the 2019-2020 school year to 2021-2022, according to new report.

Updated: November 28, 2022 - 12:07am

Utah bucked the national trend by gaining more students enrolling in public schools when almost every other state lost students to alternative education options, according to a new report.

The report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found nearly 1.5 million students left the public school system during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing losses in almost every state. The only two states to avoid enrollment decreases in public schools were Utah and Idaho.

Utah gained 7,925 students from the 2019-2020 school year to 2021-2022, according to the report.

The state’s 1.34% increase in public school enrollment came at the same time a modest increase in public charter school enrollment was also observed. Aside from Idaho, whose public school system gained 364 students during that time frame, every other state saw more public school students leave for charter schools, private schools, and other alternative options.

Neighboring states saw thousands of students leave the public education system. Colorado’s enrollment dropped by 35,151 students, Arizona’s by 34,803 students, and Nevada’s by 14,572, the report found.

While public school enrollment was decreasing across the nation, enrollment in charter schools was increasing. Those changes have held for the most part, meaning students who left the public school system don’t appear to be returning.

“Our analysis clearly demonstrates that enrollment gains in charter schools have persisted while enrollment losses for district public schools have remained,” the authors wrote.

From 2019-2020 to the 2021-2022 school year, charter schools saw a 7.08% enrollment increase across the nation. Overall, nearly 240,000 students joined charter schools, according to the report.

It’s unclear what factored into Utah and Idaho experiencing gains in public school enrollment while every other state was seeing losses. In a ranking of states’ school systems released this year by personal finance website WalletHub, Utah’s school system ranked 13th while Idaho’s ranked 37th.

However, in a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at COVID outcomes in the 50 states in terms of the economy, education, and mortality, Utah ranked first, and Idaho was also in the top 10.

States at the bottom were those who had the strictest COVID-19 policies and were among the last to return to in-person education.

“Public education is a public trust, and these enrollment numbers suggest that trust may have been shaken,” the authors of the charter school report wrote. “During the pandemic school years, we searched for charter school enrollment patterns related to geography or race. The only clear pattern we could find is that charter school growth happened almost everywhere, as did growth in homeschooling and private schools.”