Oregon’s enrollment data tell several stories

Last fall’s rush to online learning, fueled by a global pandemic, disrupted the state’s pattern of growth in traditional schools

Given that K-12 classes started on-line last fall in Oregon with no clear indication when classroom instruction would return, it’s not surprising that public schools across the state saw drops in enrollment.

Statewide, Oregon Department of Education records show nearly 22,000 fewer students signed up for public instruction at the start of the current school year compared to a year earlier, a decline of almost 4%.

But closer analysis of the data shows that enrollment data varied significantly by race and ethnicity, grade and type of public school.

For example, white and Native American enrollment fell off the most dramatically, while enrollment among Latino and multi-racial students was basically flat. Declines were sharpest in the lower grades, particularly kindergarten. And an exception to the enrollment declines were the state’s 19 on-line public charter schools, which saw a huge increase in enrollment last fall.

Here are some specific findings based on Pamplin Media Group’s analysis of the state records.

A halt to steady growth

After several years of modest-but-steady growth in Oregon public schools, enrollment dropped by 21,744 students statewide in the fall of 2020, from 568,620 to 539,212. That’s a 3.7% decline.

But the total figure includes nearly 22,000 students enrolled in public on-line charter schools last fall, which saw a spike in enrollment (details below). If you subtract the boost in on-line public charter schools, traditional “brick and mortar” schools had nearly 30,000 fewer students enrolled this academic year, a drop of more than 5%.

Another way to look at enrollment is to compare K-11 enrollment in the fall of 2019 with enrollment of grades 1 to 12 a year later, figuring that in a typical year most of those students would move up a grade. This shows a “re-enrollment” drop of 11,936 students in those grades, a decline of 2.3%.

Enrollment changes by race/ethnicity

The state of Oregon tracks public school students in seven categories base on race and ethnicity. Enrollment dropped among all groups this academic year, but not evenly: Here are the specific percentage declines, based on K-12 enrollment in the fall of last year compared to the fall of 2019:

-6.3%        Native American

-5.5%        White

-2.2%        Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

-2.0%        Asian

-1.2%        Black

-0.8%        Latino

-0.8%        Multiracial

The kindergarten factor

One reason the “re-enrollment” drop noted above is lower is because it excludes this fall’s class of kindergarteners, which had more than 6,000 fewer students than in 2019, a decline of 14.6%. (See story, “Oregon’s kindergarten class dwindles in pandemic.”) That’s more than twice the rate of decline in any other grade. If you factor in the enrollment jump at on-line public charter schools, and traditional schools saw a 16% enrollment drop in kindergarten this year.

The biggest drop in kindergarten by race and ethnicity was for white students and students categorized as Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, though the latter is a small sample size (as is the data for Native Americans). Here’s how kindergarten enrollment changed for all groups tracked by the state this fall.

-23.8%      Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

-18.2%      White

-9.2%        Latino

-8.9%        Multi-racial

-7.0%        Black

-4.5%        Asian

-1.9%        Native American

High school stability

There was actually a slight increase in high school enrollment last fall, although when you factor in the jump in high schoolers attending on-line public charter schools, traditional high schools saw a slight enrollment drop (of nearly 1,000 students) statewide. Here’s how the enrollment changed this year at all public high schools in Oregon, including on-line charter schools, by race and ethnicity.

-3.3%        Native American

-2.1%        Asian

-1.3%        White

+0.6%       Black

+2.4%       Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

+3.2%       Latino

+5.7%       Multi-racial

The online public charter surge

The Oregon Department of Education lists 131 public charter schools for the 2020-21 school year, including 19 categorized as “virtual.” (See story, “Charting a new course: Charter schools.”)

Although each of these on-line schools is affiliated (“chartered”) by a traditional public school district, they can enroll students from anywhere in the state, since they have virtual classrooms.


76%          White

12%          Latino

6%             Multi-racial

2%            Black

2%             Asian

1%             Native American

0.5%         Hawaiian/Pacific Islander

Online charter schools were becoming more popular in Oregon even before the pandemic. For example, from the fall of 2018 to the fall of 2019, enrollment in these schools rose from just under 13,000 to just over 14,000, an increase of about 9% in a year when total enrollment growth in Oregon was less than 1%.

This year, while the number of students in all K-12 public schools declined, enrollment in on-line charter schools rose to 21,705, a 55% jump.

As with brick-and-mortar schools, enrollment changes varied by grade. The number of kindergartners enrolled in online public charter schools this fall more than doubled from the previous year (a 117% increase) and almost doubled in third grade and fifth grade.  The rise in high school enrollment at the online public charter schools was the least dramatic, averaging 22% over the four grades.

The state provided enrollment by race/ethnicity for 18 of the online public charter schools for the past two years. The relatively small sample size of students of color makes analysis of that data difficult, but the surge in students did not change the overall demographics much at all.  Here’s the racial/ethnic breakdown of the combined student body of those 18 schools: