Three years and counting since the pandemic shuttered schools and tethered students to their laptops, new data shows that enrollment in the vast majority of the nation’s largest school districts has yet to recover.
Kindergarten counts continue to dwindle in many states – evidence of falling birth rates and an ever-growing array of options luring parents away from traditional public schools. Experts fear those trends, as well as a possible recession and the looming cut-off of federal relief funds, amount to a perfect storm for US education.
The $190bn in pandemic aid that was provided to schools allowed many districts to temporarily salve the loss of funds tied to falling enrollment and delay cuts to staff and programs. Those funds dry up in 17 months. As budget deficits grow and housing costs drive families out of urban areas, education leaders are staring down a host of unpalatable options, from closing half-empty buildings to laying off staff.
“If anyone was holding out hope for a bounceback, we have put that to rest,” said Brian Eschbacher, an enrollment consultant and a former Denver public schools official.
The Parkrose school district, outside Portland, Oregon, is one of many grappling with a budget shortfall.
“We have some decisions to make in the next few months,” said Sonja McKenzie, a board member in the district, where enrollment has fallen 12% since 2018. Now leaders may have to slash positions for special education assistants. Talk of layoffs is also surfacing in California, Washington and Wisconsin.
McKenzie went door-to-door last fall asking voters to approve a tax levy to fund 22 positions, but voters rejected the measure.
Some families, she said, have been “priced out” of the area, heading east to Gresham or across the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington, where they can find more affordable housing. Those areas, McKenzie said, have “benefited from our challenges”.
The 74’s enrollment analysis is based on figures from 41 states provided exclusively by Burbio, a data company, and additional data from the nation’s 20 largest school systems.
Chart of the declining school enrollment
Since last year, enrollment has declined 2.5% in Chicago, 2.4% in Houston and 2% in Nevada’s Clark county, while New York and Los Angeles saw drops of just under 2%. The Hillsborough county district in Florida, which includes Tampa, and the Gwinnett county school district, near Atlanta, are the only two large districts where enrollment now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.
This pandemic was the perfect incubation event that really caused homeschooling to thrive. We’re seeing a dramatic changeBob Templeton, enrollment consultant
In California, which has seen a whopping 5% drop in its student population since 2020, the enrollment decline has slowed, according to statewide data. But the downward slope in birth rates and exodus of parents from high-priced areas has left district and charter leaders with limited options.
Summit public schools in California’s Bay Area – a well-established charter network that spawned an online learning platform still used by 300 schools nationwide – will shutter one of its campuses at the end of this school year.
Following a community sit-in and hunger strike in Oakland, the local school board decided in January not to close several schools. Now, amid a recent teacher’s strike, the board is reconsidering whether to merge some schools because of enrollment decline.
“There is always this quality and convenience tension,” said Lakisha Young, CEO of Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy organization. “Everyone wants a school in their neighborhood that they can walk their kids to.”
But she called the emotional debate over closing schools a distraction from more important issues – namely that a majority of students aren’t reading at grade level. A third of families in the city don’t choose district schools, and some have moved further inland to Antioch or south-east to the Central Valley.
“If people have the opportunity to move to other places that are slower and quieter and safer, they are going to do that,” she said. “These decisions are not just made out of desperation, they are also out of aspiration.”
California has seen a 5% drop in student population since 2020. Photograph: Blend Images/Alamy
Some of those same aspirations are fueling a Republican push to give unhappy parents more options outside of the public schools. Twelve states now offer “education savings accounts” (ESAs), which allow families to use public funds to pay the costs of private school or homeschooling. Despite pushback from critics who argue such programs take funding away from public schools and lack accountability, similar legislation has been introduced in several more states, including Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina.
“This pandemic was the perfect incubation event that really caused homeschooling to thrive,” said Bob Templeton, another enrollment consultant with Zonda, a housing market research company. “We’re seeing this dramatic change in how we educate kids.”
In Texas, where the legislature is currently battling over an ESA bill, existing options like charters and homeschooling have contributed to a decline in what Templeton calls the “capture rate” – the percentage of children from a particular community attending their local public school.
“If they’re down 200 kids in kindergarten and it doesn’t return, then in five to seven years, that district is going to be down several thousand kids,” Templeton said. “You need to get ready to close schools.”
The options available to families have expanded so rapidly that researchers are struggling to keep up.
Counts of how many students are homeschooled are estimates at best and private school enrollment figures can be a year or two behind. That’s one reason Thomas Dee, a Stanford University education professor who tracks enrollment trends, was unable to account for more than a third of students who left public schools.
That uncertainty makes it hard to tell whether the American school system is experiencing temporary chaos or a more permanent sea change.
Nat Malkus, the deputy director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called the pandemic an “absolute asteroid” of a disruptive event. Still, he doesn’t expect ESAs or other emerging models to cause as much damage to the public education system as some critics predict.
“It’s hard to overestimate the incumbent’s strength,” he said.
That’s the case in Florida, where enrollment grew 1.3% this year and the Hillsborough district expects to keep building schools for years to come to accommodate growth.
In states with declining numbers, like Oregon, district leaders are more wary of ESAs. School choice advocates hope to get an ESA initiative on the ballot next year, but McKenzie, the Parkrose board member, is concerned such a program would hobble district schools that are already strapped for cash.
“I can understand a parent may feel like they have a better option,” she said. “But it creates a divisive system of who has the resources and who doesn’t. Less resources for the classroom impacts the whole community.”
This report was first published by the 74, a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America
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