Summary: Student Demographics

Spotlight on Key Indicators: Student Demographics

Learn More About Student Demographics

Student Demographics
Characteristics of Children with Special Needs
Family Income and Poverty
Access to Services for Children with Special Needs
Early Care and Education
Food Security
Disconnected Youth
Pupil Support Services
Impacts of Special Health Care Needs on Children and Families
School Climate
Foster Care
Why This Topic Is Important
Student demographic trends are useful for projecting potential needs and planning school and community services. California's public school system is charged with serving an extremely large and diverse student body. The state has the largest public school population and the only minority white student body in the nation (1). Approximately 6 in 10 California students face socioeconomic challenges related to family income, homelessness, living in a migratory household, or involvement with the foster care system; nearly 1 in 5 have limited English language proficiency; and more than 1 in 8 have disabilities for which they receive special education services (2). Disadvantaged children typically need additional support to achieve their academic potential (1, 3, 5). For example, programs providing free or reduced price school meals, migrant education supports, and other services offer critical assistance to students in need.
Student demographics also are important because the circumstances in which children are born and grow up strongly influence their well being and academic success (4, 5). Decades of research show persistent academic achievement gaps by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and disability status (1, 3, 5). While California faces unique challenges given the size and complexity of its student body, all systems serving students—education and child care, health and mental health care, social services, community organizations, and others—must continue working together to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to thrive.

For more information, see’s Research & Links section. Also see’s Demographics topic, which includes information about LGBT students and more.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Brighouse, H., et al. (2018). Outcomes and demographics of California's schools. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

2.  As cited on, Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals; English Learners in public schools; Special education enrollment. (2020). California Department of Education.

3.  Horowitz, S. H., et al. (2017). The state of learning disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. National Center for Learning Disabilities. Retrieved from:

4.  Arkin, E., et al. (Eds.). (2014). Time to act: Investing in the health of our children and communities. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America. Retrieved from:

5.  O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Equality and quality in U.S. education: Systemic problems, systemic solutions. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from:
How Children Are Faring
The demographics of California's schoolchildren have changed in recent decades. In 1994, 37% of the state's 5.3 million K-12 students were Hispanic/Latino, 42% were white, and 9% were African American/black. In 2020, a majority (55%) the 6.1 million students served were Hispanic/Latino, 22% were white, and 5% were African American/black. Consistent with statewide child population trends over this period, Asian American and multiracial student representation increased, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander student representation remained relatively steady, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students declined.

Nearly 800,000 California children and youth ages 0-22—13% of all students—received special education services in 2019. Autism, learning disabilities, and speech/language impairments were the most common primary disabilities among students in special education in 2019, accounting for nearly three-quarters (74%) of special education enrollment. Statewide and in all counties with data, the share of special education students receiving services for autism has grown since 2011. In 2019, 15% of special education students in California were enrolled for autism, up from 10% in 2011. Over the same period, the proportion enrolled for learning disabilities decreased from 41% to 38% and the percentage enrolled for speech/language impairments fell from 25% to 21%.

In 2019, high-needs students—i.e., those who are eligible for free or reduced price school meals, are English Learners, or are foster youth—made up 63% of K-12 students statewide. Across local areas with data, percentages ranged from 30% to 81% for counties and from less than 3% and to more than 99% for school districts.

More than 59% of California schoolchildren ages 5-17—over 3.5 million students—were eligible for free or reduced price school meals in 2020, up from 51% in 2007. Fewer than 500,000 students (8%) were eligible for reduced price meals, meaning their family incomes were between 130%-184% of their federal poverty guideline. By comparison, more than 3 million students (52%) were eligible for free meals, meaning either their family incomes were below 130% of their federal poverty guideline, they participated in the CalFresh or CalWORKS programs, they were eligible for the Migrant Education Program, they were homeless, or were foster youth.

In 2019, just over 47,000 California students were eligible for the Migrant Education Program (MEP), which provides educational and supportive services to students who have moved in the previous three years due to migratory work in the agricultural, dairy, lumber, or fishing industries. More than a quarter of students eligible for the MEP statewide lived in three Central Valley counties: Fresno, Kern and Tulare.

Students with limited English language proficiency—English Learners—accounted for 19% California's student body in 2020, down from 25% in 1998. Spanish consistently has been the most common primary language among English Learners statewide and in virtually all counties with data. Following Spanish, the state's most common primary languages among English Learners are Vietnamese and Mandarin.
Policy Implications
California schools serve an increasingly diverse population of more than 6 million students, a majority of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged (1). Many students also face challenges related to disabilities or chronic health conditions, limited English proficiency, and other issues (1). Academic achievement gaps by race/ethnicity, disability status, family financial resources, and English fluency have persisted for decades, statewide and nationally (2, 3, 4). In adulthood, these gaps translate to disparities in college completion, employment, and income (2). While significant state and federal education reform efforts have taken place in recent years, and some progress has been made in reducing these gaps, substantial inequities remain (3). Policymakers and educators have a role in addressing these disparities and ensuring that all students, whatever their social position or circumstance, have equitable opportunities for educational success.

Policy and program options to support disadvantaged students and promote educational equity include:
  • Ensuring that all children have access to high-quality early childhood education and pre-kindergarten programs, which can help reduce disparities that begin before kindergarten, and lay the foundation for later achievement (2, 5)
  • Creating a long-term funding solution for California's K-12 education system, and ensuring an equitable distribution of qualified teachers and other school staff (3, 5)
  • Ensuring that the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Plan, Local Control Funding Formula, and new education standards are implemented effectively in every district and school (3, 4, 6)
  • Promoting strategies with demonstrated effectiveness in serving diverse English Learner (EL) populations, including adequate training for teachers and professionals who serve ELs, increasing alignment across early childhood education and primary grade systems, and effectively engaging families of ELs (7, 8)
  • Continuing to support schools and communities in creating safe, positive environments and developing comprehensive, evidence-based school systems to address students' physical, emotional, behavioral, and other needs (4, 5)
  • Encouraging school discipline policies that are non-punitive, fair, and aim to keep students in school when possible (5, 9)
  • Continuing to strengthen strategies in child care, education, home visiting, health care, and other settings to meet the needs of children with disabilities, including effective screening and referral processes for early intervention and special education services (9)
  • Addressing inefficiencies in special education financing and delivery, improving coherence between special education and general education, and working toward funding and accountability systems that serve students with disabilities more effectively (3, 9)
  • Maintaining and strengthening social safety net programs, including free and reduced price school meals, and increasing enrollment among eligible children; as part of this, continuing efforts to make it simpler and less stigmatizing for students and families to receive free or reduced price school breakfast and lunch (5, 10)
  • Continuing to promote supportive policies toward immigrant and migratory families, recognizing the potential for federal action to negatively affect immigrant students and families (11)
For more information, see’s Research & Links section, or visit Public Policy Institute of California and Getting Down to Facts. Also see's Demographics topic and topics under Education and Child Care.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  As cited on, Students eligible for free or reduced price school meals; Special education enrollment; English Learners in public schools. (2020). California Department of Education.

2.  Brighouse, H., et al. (2018). Outcomes and demographics of California's schools. Getting Down to Facts II. Retrieved from:

3.  Warren, P., et al. (2020). California's future: K-12 education. Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from:

4.  O'Day, J. A., & Smith, M. S. (2016). Equality and quality in U.S. education: Systemic problems, systemic solutions. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from:

5.  Children Now. (2020). 2020 California children's report card: A survey of kids' well-being and roadmap for the future. Retrieved from:

6.  California Department of Education. (2019). California ESSA consolidated state plan. Retrieved from:

7.  National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Promoting the educational success of children and youth learning English: Promising futures. Retrieved from:

8.  Sandoval-Gonzalez, A. (2017). Every Student Succeeds Act: A vision to address the needs of California's youngest learners. Californians Together & Advancement Project. Retrieved from:

9.  California Statewide Task Force on Special Education. (2015). One system: Reforming education to serve all students. Retrieved from:

10.  California Food Policy Advocates. (2017). School meal access and participation: California statewide summary 2015-16. Retrieved from:

11.  Children's Partnership, & California Immigrant Policy Center. (2018). Healthy mind, healthy future: Promoting the mental health and wellbeing of children in immigrant families in California. Retrieved from:
Websites with Related Information
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