For the first time since the turn of the century, California has fewer than 6 million students attending public schools.
According to new data released by the California Department of Education, enrollment in public schools continues to fall Faster pandemics than before, further budget cuts and raising fears of long-term financial instability for schools.
For much of a decade, public school enrollment has been steadily declining in California, largely due to a lack of affordable housing, statewide education officials said.
When the pandemic hit California, early job losses clashed with that trend, and the decline worsened.
Richard Barrera, a councilor in San Diego Unified, the second largest district in the state, said the families were moving out of the district, especially in the gentrification areas, and caused disproportionate losses to schools in those neighborhoods. Then, workers began to lose their jobs in 2020, and more families had to relocate.
“When we opened schools last year, those schools had a smaller presence,” Barrera said. “It’s more expensive for people with children to live in California.”
In the years before the pandemic, enrollment in traditional non-charter public schools fell by about 1 percent a year. In the first year of the pandemic, however, enrollment fell by more than 3 percent, to about 175,000 students.
Enrollment in charter schools also fell, losing 12,600 students this year, a major reversal of historical trends. Since 2015, charter schools have seen an increase of at least 10,000 students each year.
California Department of Education officials had no clear explanation for the sudden drop.
Myrna Castrejón, president of the California Association of Charter Schools, said the decline shows that charter schools “face the same challenges as non-charter public schools.” He called for equitable funding of the charters.
In non-charter schools, a large portion of the drop in enrollment during the first year of the pandemic was decided by tens of thousands of parents who decided not to enroll in kindergarten. Most of the school’s campuses were closed at the time and the children were studying online.
This year, with the opening of school buildings, enrollment in kindergarten has risen by more than 7,000 students, recovering slightly from last year’s 60,000 drop in students.
However, the number of students enrolled in primary school has dropped by 18,000 this year – one of the largest declines in single-level education – suggesting that by 2020 many pupils of kindergarten age have not returned to public school for primary education.
California Department of Education officials will not comment on where these students have gone. Some school district officials have also said they are looking for answers.
“It’s a problem at every level,” said Barrett Snider of Capitol Advisors, a school district lobby firm. “We don’t know where they went.”
Since most California public schools are funded by a combination of enrollment and attendance, small school districts feel particularly hurt. Those who leave a few students can make a lot of money from the budget.
“We’ve had a drop in enrollment since the turn of the century,” said Linda Irving, superintendent of the Sevastopol Union School District. “As the school gets smaller, it’s getting harder to deliver quality programming, like music classes.”
The 788-student district has used interim state grants to cover its costs, Irving said, but needs a more sustainable solution.
It can be frustrating to work in a school that is reducing the student population, he said. Administrators have a marketing budget to attract more families, but they are forced to reduce staff.
“I was home from the gym yesterday, and I heard another superintendent on the radio,” Irving said. “We’re competing against each other.”
Brett McFadden, a superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, said a large portion of his rural community residents work in the service industry and had to look for other jobs when businesses closed in the pandemic. Others left recently as the state began enforcing masking rules and issuing vaccination orders.
“It’s hard to do exit interviews, but our conclusion is that people left for work,” McFadden said. “Or they left because private schools were not following the orders of the mask.”
According to state data, enrollment at Nevada Joint Union High was stable at about 2,800 students before the pandemic. As of Friday, McFadden said, enrollment is at 2,605. He said he had lost 197 students since the start of the school year, which cost him more than $ 2 million in funding.
“The drop in enrollment can’t be fixed,” he said. “I think we have to accept that the drop in enrollment is part of the broader demographic trends that are happening in our state.”
Smoothing the blow
State leaders are putting in place measures to alleviate the pain of declining enrollment.
In the proposed budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom said it would allow school districts to use a three-year average attendance rate to calculate funding for next year. This can be a big help, especially since most schools have dropped their attendance at this year’s omicron hike.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Glendale, author Senate Bill 830, which would pay for the range of tuition rather than attendance.
Although the political debate over funding for tuition-based care has been going on for years, Portantino said the time is right for change because of the state surplus and the severe crisis in attendance and tuition declines.
“School districts have to make a budget based on enrollment,” Portantino said. “It doesn’t make sense to punish them if they leave during the year.”
Under his proposal, the districts would still be funded by assistance, but may apply for additional funding depending on enrollment. The bill would require districts to use 30 percent of additional funding to address chronic absenteeism.
While these proposals may mitigate the tax consequences of reducing tuition, regional leaders have yet to figure out why. so many students are attending. And they feel powerless to turn the trend around.
“Schools are trying to react to a public health crisis and keep the lights on, so when children are gone there is not much capacity to harass them and see what has happened,” lobbyist Snider said. “But I think that’s going to be a big focus as we get out of this.”
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