Analyst: Virginia Public School Enrollment Sees First Drop in Decades

Dec 24, 2018

For decades, Virginia has seen its student enrollment climb year after year.

But now, something different is happening.

After decades of steady increase, Virginia’s public school enrollment dropped 2,000 students this year. It’s the first decline in enrollment since 1984.

Hamilton Lombard at the University of Virginia says it’s probably a welcome relief to Northern Virginia, where taxpayers have been financing a massive growth in schools in recent years.

Source: Virginia Department of Education Fall Count, 2018 to 2023 regional enrollment projected by the Weldon Cooper Center

“I think when you go out into rural areas, it’s maybe not as much a relief," Lombard says. "In theory having fewer students means less money to be spent on education. But it’s harder to find ways to cut costs when you’ve already consolidated and cut staff for decades.”

Lombard says part of the trend is driven by outmigration, more people leaving Virginia than moving here. But there’s another trend too, declining birth rates. He says the enrollment declines could theoretically reverse if birth rates start going up.

“But people have been expecting birth rates to rise ever since the recession ended. And it’s been eight years since the recession ended and birth rates continue to decline in Virginia and continue to decline nationally,” Lombard noted.

Hampton Roads has seen the largest decline in terms of the number of students. But the largest percent decline has been in Southwest. Between 2010 and 2023, Lombard says, student enrollment in the Southwest corner of Virginia is expected to decline 20 percent.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.