Empty Desks: The Enrollment Crisis in Boston Public Schools

By Peter Ciurczak

June 17, 2024

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In her 2024 State of the City address Mayor Wu focused on the future of families in Boston. She acknowledged concerns about housing affordability, school quality and cultural vibrancy. And she highlighted efforts to continue the “legacy of making Boston a true home for young people and families.” This is an admirable goal, as families are a necessary component of any thriving community’s present and future.

But in this the Mayor is working against headwinds facing many large American cities. Housing shortages in high-demand cities have led to historic increases in rents and home prices—and to families moving out. In general, couples are having fewer children. Collectively, these pressures mean that fewer kids are enrolling in our schools. While an influx of immigrant children has helped partially offset school enrollment declines in the last couple of years, the long-term trend is disturbing.

This piece is the first of a series of research briefs that will explore the related issues of school enrollment declines, housing cost increases, residential segregation, and population declines of young families with children. Here, we analyze long-term enrollment declines in Boston, highlighting the likelihood of continued reductions as K–2 enrollment has declined sharply in recent years. The second brief will focus on the increasing residential and school-based segregation of Boston, by race and class. Finally, we will broaden our lens in the third brief and examine how these patterns in Boston are playing out in surrounding municipalities.

We begin our analysis by looking at Boston Public Schools enrollment back to 1940, the oldest data we have access to.

A few generations ago, Boston was a much more vibrant city for families, with more than twice as many kids enrolled in our public schools. Yet even as the city’s population increased by between 80,000 and 140,000 people from 1980 (depending on your choice of estimates for Boston’s current population), its school-aged population of 5-to-17-year-olds declined by almost 28,000.

We’ve been losing kids in very recent years as well, as childless young professionals increasingly make up the bulk of Boston’s population; public school enrollment (BPS plus charter school) is down by just over 6,000 kids since 2019. And more than 11,000 of those remaining in 2024 attend out-of-district charter schools. These school enrollment declines are troubling for a variety of reasons. For example, the city and our schools are becoming more segregated by income and race as most of the families with kids who leave the city for K–12 schooling years are middle and upper income.

There’s also growing recognition that with enrollment declines, Boston is operating more school buildings than makes sense, meaning that funding is not being maximized to support the needs of students in our classrooms. But closing and consolidating schools is politically challenging. It inevitably requires some families to leave beloved schools. BPS has acknowledged the need to make these structural changes, but action to implement them has been slow. The recent district master facilities plan, for instance, is low on specifics. Only recently has BPS offered a couple of recommendations for which schools to close and merge, but it’s clear more would need to follow.

It’s also not the case that there are more Boston kids attending private schools. In the next graph we break down which type of schools Boston students attend, back to 1985, and find that enrollment is also down significantly for Boston residents at private and parochial schools. Out-of-district public school enrollment (e.g., METCO) fluctuated a bit but is roughly level over this full timeframe. And while charter enrollment is up over the long term, it’s up nowhere near enough to offset the other declines. There are simply fewer children attending schools in Boston today than we’ve seen at any point in the recent past.

It’s worth noting that enrollment is capped for students attending charter schools and METCO, so those categories might otherwise have seen greater increases, likely drawing even more students away from BPS.

Next, we break down Boston’s public school enrollment data by grade cluster, finding that while high school enrollment is up a bit since 1994, K–2 enrollment is way down. Other elementary grades have seen somewhat large swings, with 3rd-5th grade enrollment also ultimately down by about 1,300 kids.

K–2 declines are especially concerning as they are the strongest predictor of future patterns (for more detail on these dynamics, check out Boston Schools Fund’s Taking Attendance: BPS Enrollment Analysis 2022-23). Smaller K–2 cohorts mean fewer students to age up through the grades. The 2015 decline in grades K–2, for instance, was followed three years later by declines in grades 3–5, and three years after that in grades 6–8. Though the throughline is a little less direct when looking at high school enrollment, these declines are likely to manifest again for grades 9–12 in the 2025 school year.

Not shown here is pre-kindergarten enrollment, which has grown from 1,939 kids in 1998 to more than 3,000 in 2024, due to the expansion of Boston’s universal pre-K program. This growth is not leading to increased enrollment in other grades, however, as K–2 enrollment has largely declined over this same timeframe (albeit with a slight uptick from 2022 to 2024 likely due to immigration).

It’s important to note that in the grade-level analysis above and cohort-level analysis below, we include Commonwealth Charter enrollment. We refer to this combined measure here and throughout this piece as “Boston’s Public Schools,” because students attending charters are still attending schools in Boston. We’ve decided to lump these groups together, as the overall focus of our series is on analyzing the ability of families with school-aged kids to live in the city and attend our public schools. If we were to focus just on trends for BPS district schools, these declines would be even more pronounced.

Another way of visualizing these declines is by looking at a single cohort of students and following them from kindergarten through 12th grade (as below with graduating class of…). The class of 2024, for instance, began as kindergarteners in Boston’s Public Schools back in 2012.

Notably, more than half the classes since the graduating class of 2026 have started with fewer children across the K–2 grades than the year before. At the end of the pattern for which we have data is the graduating class of 2034, whose K–2 enrollment is 13.4 percent below that of the class of 2024.

These graphs also show where cohort sizes grow or decline, typically increasing in 1st, 5th and 9th grades and mostly declining across the 2nd through 4th grades and after 5th grade (though with significant variation). Much of this growth and decline is influenced by families moving into-and-out of the city or trying (and possibly failing), to get into their preferred schools. Yet over time and across classes, the declines have become more pronounced and growth more limited. The most dramatic declines are reserved for the class of 2029, which started kindergarten in 2017. It is the only cohort that has seen consecutive, year-over-year enrollment declines.

As we mentioned in the introduction, however, the three most recent cohorts have seen higher enrollment during their first-grade year. This may be a consequence of the increased family immigration the state is seeing as a whole.

Throughout our analysis, we emphasize that declining enrollment is not new. Since at least 1940, generations of parents, teachers and district leaders have had to deal with these challenges. But it’s our collective responsibility nonetheless to find a way to finally reverse, or at least slow, these trends. And to the extent that we’re facing bigger headwinds not directly within our control—like declining birth rates nationwide—we need more proactive redesign of systems like our public schools to best serve the smaller cohort of kids who remain in Boston.

In future installments of this series, we’ll dive into what these population and enrollment declines have meant for school segregation and broader trends around who’s living in Boston. We also plan to analyze these trends for other urban core communities in Greater Boston, as rising housing costs have led to an increase in domestic outmigration, especially among young families.

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