public school enrollment
Oklahoma's public schools saw a student enrollment increase for the 2021-2022 school year. (Screenshot)

Enrollment in Oklahoma’s 543 public school districts is up by 4,583 students for the 2021-22 school year, a partway recovery from last year’s enrollment dip. Tulsa Public Schools, meanwhile, surpassed Oklahoma City Public Schools to become the largest district in the state for the first time since 2013, though both districts’ enrollment numbers fell over the past year. 

According to data released recently by the State Department of Education, a total of 698,696 students are enrolled in the state’s public schools for the current school year. During the 2020-21 school year, pre-K through 12th grade enrollment fell by 9,537 students. It was the first statewide enrollment drop in more than a decade and has largely been blamed on the coronavirus pandemic as some families opted to delay the entry of their youngest students and others chose to homeschool, an option that nearly tripled during the pandemic.

The latest numbers also show a reversal of last year’s movement toward virtual charter schools, which saw their enrollment numbers skyrocket during the 2020-2021 school year while enrollment fell at traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

The virtual charter schools Epic One-on-One and Epic Blended, for instance, had an enrollment increase of more than 110 percent last year, but this year Epic’s enrollment dropped by about 35 percent. Epic One-on-One currently has 23,156 students enrolled, compared to last year’s 35,731, while Epic Blended currently has 15,178 students enrolled, compared to 23,714 last year.

The decrease in enrollment is expected to result in a $60 million drop in state-allocated funding for the two schools and prompted Epic to begin “right sizing” operations in November.

Enrollment totals are based on a student count from Oct. 1, 2021. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said in a statement that schools will continue to focus on the implementation of Ready Together Oklahoma, an action plan for supporting students throughout the pandemic and beyond.

“For a vast majority of students, learning in the classroom with their peers is vital,” Hofmeister’s statement said. “Despite the omicron surge, schools are committed to closing learning gaps, supporting mental health and accelerating academic growth.”

Tulsa and OKCPS enrollment down

Despite the overall increase in enrollment numbers, the state’s two largest school systems, Tulsa Public Schools and OKCPS, still had a decrease in enrollment compared to last year. 

OKCPS has 32,086 students enrolled for the current school year, while Tulsa Schools has 33,211 enrolled. During the 2020-21 school year, OKCPS had a total of 37,344 students and Tulsa Public Schools had 35,765. 

However, some of Oklahoma’s other largest school districts, including Edmond, Moore, Broken Arrow, Putnam City, Norman and Union Public Schools, each saw their student populations increase:

  • Edmond Public Schools increased from 23,496 to 25,481 students;
  • Moore Public Schools increased from 23,390 to 24,515 students;
  • Broken Arrow Public Schools increased from 18,619 to 19,527 students;
  • Putnam City Schools increased from 17,829 to 18,287 students;
  • Norman Public Schools increased from 14,419 to 15,447 students;
  • Union Public Schools increased from 14,959 to 15,008 students.

Pre-K and kindergarten enrollment numbers, which accounted for about 75 percent of last year’s decrease, have also risen, though by only a fraction of the previous drop.

In a statement to NonDoc, Oklahoma Education Association President Katherine Bishop said she believes the increase in student enrollment shows that parents think of public education as their first choice.

“After two years of virtual learning brought on by the pandemic, families could have stayed at home for their education,” Bishop said. “Instead, they’re coming back to their local schools. Parents, students, and educators all want in-person instruction. That’s why it’s so important we all do our part to keep schools open by doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.”

In-person learning still disrupted by COVID-19

Despite enrollment trends showing a desire for students to return to in-person learning, school districts throughout the state are continuing to grapple with the effects of the pandemic. More than  200 districts temporarily closed or pivoted to remote learning at the start of this semester owing to staff and student absences.

State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters drew criticism from members of the education community after he posted on Twitter last week that “the first reaction should not be to shut schools down. It is the last resort.”

“I call on schools to use all of their available resources and administrative staff to cover classes to ensure all of our students are given an in-person education option,” Walters’ post said. “They should fulfill their obligation to educate our kids in Oklahoma.”

The Oklahoma Parent Legislative Action Committee released a statement Thursday afternoon taking issue with Walters’ comments.

“Oklahoma parents are offended by the State Secretary of Education’s recent comments alleging that school leaders aren’t doing enough to keep kids in the classroom,” the PLAC statement reads. “We are weary of uninformed state officials who choose to attack rather than support and encourage our schools, educators and students.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Walters joined Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced an executive order authorizing state employees to fill in at public schools that need staffing assistance.

Full 2021-22 Oklahoma schools enrollment data

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