ST. PAUL — Minnesota public schools saw a 2% dip in enrollment earlier this school year as more families opted to homeschool or send their children to private or parochial schools due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Education on Friday, Feb. 19, reported that enrollment for the 2020-21 school year tracked 17,000 fewer students in the state's public schools compared to the academic year prior. Driving the gap was a 9% drop in kindergarten students enrolled in public schools.

Education officials said families either delayed their start by a year or instead enrolled their kids in kindergarten at a private school. Kindergarten enrollment numbers in nonpublic schools climbed by 12.4% compared to a year prior, according to the state's data.

And the number of students enrolled in homeschooling jumped 49.5% compared to the 2019-2020 school year. The report also noted that more white students left public schools than other demographic groups, with white student enrollment dropping by 3.7% compared to the prior academic year. That comes out to about 20,000 students.

The enrollment totals were reported on Oct. 1, 2020.

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State education officials on Friday said the drop in public school enrollment could fuel budget problems for Minnesota schools since education spending plans are determined based on how many pupils are enrolled. While the numbers may be down now, they expected enrollment to rebound as students enrolled or re-enrolled as the pandemic subsided or as more schools returned for in-person or hybrid learning.

“COVID-19 has already robbed our students of so many milestones that make school memorable,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said in a news release. “Now, our schools are potentially facing a huge loss in funding and resources, which will mean schools faced with eliminating learning opportunities and experiences for our students, especially students who need them most."

Gov. Tim Walz as part of his budget proposal put up $25 million to make up for the lower enrollment. But it will ultimately be up to state lawmakers to decide how much to put toward Minnesota schools. Republican legislators on Friday said public school funding should reflect the number of students enrolled.

Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers' union, on Friday urged support for the additional funding.

“If we’re serious about making sure every child can pursue their dreams regardless of what they look like or where they are from, our leaders in the Legislature need to act quickly,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “We can’t let a one-year dip in enrollment force budget cuts that will penalize the students who will return next year, especially when schools already needed more resources to help our students rebound academically and recover emotionally after this horrible pandemic year.”

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com