Analysis News & Analysis

Public School Budgets Implode as California Experiences Massive Population Decline

A California classroom with “social distancing” dividers. Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Catholic News Service

Los Angeles County’s population declined by 160,000 residents between July of 2020 and 2021, the largest county-wide decline in the nation. Driven largely by LA’s decline, California lost 262,000 residents over the same period, the highest of any state in the nation. 

With “nearly all” of California’s population loss driven by domestic migration, analysis suggests residents are leaving the state for lower cost of living, better job opportunities, family, and a political climate more conducive to their values and beliefs. 

Despite the headline-grabbing overall population decline, much of California still experienced significant growth. Outside of California’s coastal counties, where housing is increasingly unaffordable, crime is on the rise and the quality of public education is in question, populations continued to grow, especially in the Inland Empire’s San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, which were among the fastest growing counties in the nation. 

As a result of the state’s overall decline, California has already lost one congressional seat. At a more immediate, local level, population decline is manifesting in plummeting enrollment in California’s public schools. Because public schools use enrollment to determine funding, collapsing enrollment — from both migration and parents choosing other education options to escape lockdowns and progressive-leaning curriculums — could be a death knell for the public schools in California’s fastest-declining regions. 

Public schools were allowed to use 2019 enrollment figures for determining their state funding for the past two years, but that exemption ends this year. Using current, not historical enrollment figures, California public schools are likely to lose $3 billion or more this school year. 
Meanwhile, enrollment in California private schools is expanding at a breakneck pace, with an increase of 4% for 2020-2021 academic year and growth expected to continue, even amid overall declines in the state’s population.