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U.S. preschool enrollment hits lowest level since 2005

By Brett Rowland
The Center Square

Fewer parents sent children to preschool in 2021 in a decline that corresponded with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The percentage of 3-to-6-year-olds enrolled in preschool in the United States dropped by 9.3 percentage points from 2019 to 2021, from 51.1% to 41.8%, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report.

The 4.1 million preschool enrollees in 2021 was the smallest number since the American Community Survey started collecting these data in 2005. The decline coincides with the pandemic emergency when many schools closed because of public health and safety concerns.

Enrollment in both public and private preschools declined, according to the report. Public school enrollment fell by 6.5 percentage points (30.5% to 24.0%) and private school enrollment by 2.8 points (20.6% to 17.8%), according to the report.

From 2019 to 2021, 42 states and the District of Columbia had statistically significant declines in preschool enrollment. Eight reported no significant change: Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Alabama and Alaska.  

State-level percentage declines in preschool enrollment ranged from 3.6 points in Indiana to 19 points in New Hampshire. 

Large percentage declines occurred along both coasts, with drops in California (13.9 points), New Jersey (13.9 points), Maryland (13.8 points), Oregon (13.3 points) and Washington (13.3 points), according to the report.

"These data show how the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on patterns of early childhood education," according to the report. "Future research will show if this was the start of a long-term trend or if enrollment will bounce back to prior levels."

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