UPDATE: Check out the Washington State Enrollment Explorer (Now with the FREE Private School and Homeschool Explorer DLC!)

click to enlarge UPDATE: Check out the Washington State Enrollment Explorer (Now with the FREE Private School and Homeschool Explorer DLC!)
Photo illustration by Daniel Walters using photo illustration by Nate Sanford using stock art from Canva/Smartmockups
A stock art model uses the Inlander's Washington State Enrollment Explorer while waiting for Whitworth University to fix its ransomware situation
Imagine the equivalent of every student in the Seattle Public Schools district vanishing in a single year: That, effectively, is what happened in Washington state in the fall of 2020, as an exodus of tens of thousands — nearly four percent of the total student population — left the school system in the midst of COVID. And while some returned during the fall of 2021, enrollment barely recovered at all.

In fact, under the state's typical per-student method of handing out funds to school districts, the enrollment drop would have totaled more than a billion dollars in slashed funding to Washington schools over the last two years, had state legislators not scrambled to find ways to pour money back into the school system.

Already, groups like the conservative American Enterprise Institute have marshaled evidence to show that COVID-cautious, largely Democratic-leaning states have suffered many of the biggest enrollment declines.

But we wanted to go deeper. We took granular enrollment data from the Washington state school system, crunched it and developed a tool that lets you zoom all the way into a single grade level at a single school and all the way back out to survey the entire state.

Start clicking around and you can explore it yourself. Clicking the map, using the search bar, or even clicking a chunk of the enrollment bar in that state will bring up the bar graph of that district. Think of it like Myst, but for enrollment data visualizations. (Type in "State Total" in the district field and set the school field to "(All)" if you get stuck.)


We'll tell you what we learned if you scroll down, but go ahead and spend some time exploring it yourself first.

- First thing's first. This is not a story about high school students. In fact, high schools were barely scratched by the enrollment shifts. Enrollment declines were much more concentrated at the grade school levels in most districts. But it's really, really a story about pre-schools and kindergartens. At that level, the enrollment collapse was absolutely insane. Kindergarten and pre-school enrollment fell by nearly a third in a single year in Spokane Public Schools, and 22 percent statewide. A lot of that has to do with the fact that younger students in Washington state aren't legally obligated to go to school at all.

- What's the deal with the Omak school district? It's not the first time we've asked that question. Omak hosts Washington Virtual Academy, an online for-profit charter school with, well, inconsistent results. Back in 2017, we warned that while online education can be good for some students, they produced dismal results overall. Three years later, the entire state switched to almost entirely online education for nearly a year.

And for 2020, Washington Virtual Academy made sense: If you must do online school, why not pick one that actually has some experience under their belt?

(The same thing happened with the Goldendale school district. With the launch of Washington Connections Academy-Goldendale, an online school with students around the state, in the fall of 2020, student enrollment suddenly took off.)

- You average out 2020 and 2021, and Seattle and Spokane look pretty similar in terms of how much their enrollment has fallen by. But their trajectories are different: Spokane started out with a steeper drop — about 7 percent — in 2020, then slightly recovered in 2021. But Seattle kept plummeting, dropping 4 percent and then dropping another 4 percent in 2021. But is that due to parents upset about Seattle's COVID caution — or parents who think that Seattle Public Schools wasn't being nearly cautious enough?


Next, we've designed a similar app to explore the data for private schools and homeschool.

Now, a word of caution, because the private school and the homeschool data is much messier. Both of them rely on local administrators to fill out and submit and format the data in a consistent way.

For example, want to understand how many students in the Central Valley School District were homeschooled in 2019? Well, you can't. That year, the district failed to submit a report laying out how many students in their borders officially registered to homeschool their students. And children since children under 8 aren't required to even attend school, many of them aren't including in the homeschool data set either.

As for private schooling? The trouble is that sometimes a school would submit under a name like St. Crispin's Academy for Decent Blokes but then the next year the same institution would just submit under the name "Saint Crisp'n." We've tried to clean up the data the best we can, but we guarantee there are still issues. So, as the Latin motto of St. Crispins' Catholic Parochial Education School would put it: "Caveat Emptor"

That being said, what does the data tells us? We have two separate stories. The fall of 2020 kicks off a year of homeschooling, while in 2021, many of those homeschoolers had either returned to the classroom or had enrolled in private schools.

Private schools only made tiny gains in the fall of 2020 before exploding in popularity in 2021. Here, here's a bonus graph for all you histogram-heads out there:  Even if you combine the number in private schools and registered homeschoolers, it doesn't nearly make up for the loss overall.

Meanwhile, which school district had the most students registered as homeschoolers, in terms of raw numbers? It's not Seattle, the most populous district. It's not Lake Washington either. It's our own Spokane Public Schools. 

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

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