Declining Public School Enrollment

By Mike Koetting August 30, 2022

Schools are now underway for the year, so this is a timely spot for a post on education. While there are many possible topics, I have been specifically thinking about something a little wonkish: declining public school enrollment.

The Decline

A recent New York Times article proclaimed “Plunging Enrollment a ‘Seismic Hit’ to Public Schools”. It went on to state that “America’s public schools have lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020.” This did not surprise me. The country’s fertility rate has declined by almost 18% since 1990. In the last 10 years, this decline included Latin and Black populations. Combined with declining immigration rates, dropping enrollments would be expected. But the drop has been uneven. Nationwide, a large portion of the recent sharp decline in public school enrollment is in pre-kindergarten and, to a lesser extent, kindergarten. Some of this is due to declining fertility, but it has been clearly aggravated by specific responses to the Covid pandemic. Aside from this, it seems that the aggregate slide in enrollment is minimal.

On the other hand, there is nothing gradual about the enrollment declines in many of America’s large cities. It seems this is the basis for the Times’ headline. Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago and others have all lost a substantial number of students since peaks in the 2000s.

The example of Chicago is instructive.  By 2021, Chicago had lost almost 20% of its public school enrollment in the previous decade. Enrollment was lower again last year and the guess is that enrollment will be even lower this year when the numbers become available.

The teachers’ union says the problem is underfunded and unsafe schools and the charter school advocates say it is a result of people flocking to charter schools. Both of these may be contributing factors, but the bigger culprit is demography. From 2009 to 2019, births in Chicago fell from approximately 44,000 children per year to 33,000 children per year. With the number of children being born decreasing, it doesn’t take a team of academics to figure out why the school enrollment is decreasing.

What Follows from This?

There are many important questions to be answered about the quality and results of our urban school systems. But those are for another day. This post focuses on the less arguable fact that there are dramatically fewer children in many big urban school systems. Changes in the schools by themselves will not change this trend. It is probable that problems in the city school system contribute to fewer children being born in the city. But surely public safety, transportation, economic opportunity, gender roles and, very particularly, housing are much larger factors.

For most of the last 60 years, urban areas, were growing but their growth was primarily in their suburban portions. Traditional urban residential areas didn’t change that much in the early part of that period but later in that period they started to empty out as White flight drained population and poverty led to more deterioration in the housing stock while, paradoxically, increases in the relative expense of the remaining housing drove others out.

In recent years, there has been an uptick in urban density. But the two factors driving that—growth of high density housing in central cities, primarily younger and wealthier, and growth in suburban cities on the border of central cities—do not lead to more children in the urban school districts. Barring dramatic changes in housing policy and/or immigration policy, the students are not coming back to the big urban school districts. 

Like it or not, cities must respond to an ongoing change of this magnitude.

For openers, this will affect the basic finances of impacted school systems. Although school funding schemes differ from state to state, in almost all cases a portion of school funding is tied to attendance. If enrollment declines, funding will in degree follow. Virtually all of these formulae were put in place while attendance was growing, so there hasn’t been much attention to the reality that costs are typically, as economists say, more “sticky” on the downward side than in periods of increase. Thus, pro-rata reductions will be problematic.

But laws can be changed, however difficult. Conceptually more thorny is deciding what should be the policy response. Perhaps there is some argument that simply maintaining the current level of school funding is a reasonable, even if expensive, response to these enrollment decreases since additional per pupil expenditures could be used to improve educational results. But even if that is the case, it’s not easy to imagine how to do so in an efficient manner.

Planning for Lower Enrollments

For one thing, the enrollment declines are uneven. An aggregate 20% pupil reduction over some period will rarely lead to all schools operating at 80% of their capacity. Some will still be overcrowded and some will have attention-catching low occupancy. At some point low occupancy becomes an irresponsible use of public funds. Measuring where, however, is tricky. Simple “percent of capacity” figures can be unhelpful because they may be driven simply by having excess physical capacity in a particular site. While excess physical capacity adds costs, the capacity itself represents sunk costs and is not an overwhelming expense driver. The much more important question is at what point does the size/cost profile of a particular school tilt its costs per pupil beyond what is reasonable.

Moreover, one has to wonder if there is a point at which low-attendance schools are materially impacted in their educational function by the relative lack of student density. Is smaller class size an unlimited good? How is the point at which smaller class size becomes unsupportable influenced by  teacher shortages? Do teachers in low attendance schools need a different skill set than in other schools? What happens to the amount of support personal (social workers, librarians, etc.) as attendance dwindles? Does curriculum shrink as total enrollment declines, presumably a bigger problem in the upper grades.

Not surprisingly, low utilization often appears in neighborhoods with the most problems. People who live in “bad” neighborhoods have higher motivation to leave than those who live in “good” neighborhoods. This makes schools in troubled, primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods, the most underutilized and the most obvious candidates for closure. Which in turn leads to charges that school closing are being targeted at poor people and people of color, which often makes the issue politically charged.

Still, the issue of declining enrollment could be better addressed than putting off any school consolidations for as long as possible and then doing whatever necessary to get through the political firestorm. There should be a more proactive approach, imagining how adjusting for declining enrollments could fit in with larger urban planning goals.

I suspect that the specifics of what might work would vary from community to community, and, in any event, are better left to a discussion between the people who actually know about such things and the communities themselves. But I have a couple of random thoughts.

  • Schools, particularly in urban school districts, have already been morphing into a broader set of uses—such as providing after-school care necessary to accommodate working families or serving as the largest source of breakfast for the children of a neighborhood. Maybe this trend could be extended further and more deliberately. Maybe smaller enrollment schools might work well in buildings thought of more as community centers than schools per se.
  • Developing flexible, high quality transportation systems may open additional possibilities. However done, nothing would be as convenient as the neighborhood school. But if some degree of busing becomes unavoidable, it might be possible to better match students to specialized opportunities. (Several student-transportation companies have been started on the West Coast claiming their mix of technology and multiple vehicle options could offer better student transportation. It’s too early to tell if these are just sales pitches or if they really offer expanded capabilities, but they are worth keeping an eye on.)
  • While the “on-line” educational offerings of the pandemic did no favors to students, particularly minority students, it is probably too early to completely give up on instruction via computer. It might be possible, for instance, to materially lower the per-pupil cost of low enrollment schools by mixing on site instruction with supervised technology.
  • It seems that absent any concerted policy investments, it’s likely that for the foreseeable future, many urban areas will have “bare spots.” The need for developing sensible plans for those areas goes far beyond educational planning, but how schools are reconfigured could reinforce some approaches.

How all this plays out will probably depend on the extent to which all the players (parents, union, administrators and politicians) accept the idea that the old model isn’t going to work and that we need to experiment our way to a good response. I hope a sufficient number of school superintendents feel lucky enough to try.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

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