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Declining enrollment affects how public schools balance budgets

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Students on their way to class.

A new study found that children who made cross-class connections and friendships had a much higher chance of rising out of poverty. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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In Fort Worth, Texas, Nancy Jakowitsch and her husband decided to home-school their 7-year-old daughter this year. They were worried about the risk of her being exposed to COVID-19 if she attended first grade in person. Jakowitsch said it was also nice to have extra time together.

“We’re happy to have had a very, very, very long spring break with her over the last two years,” she said.

Jakowitsch’s daughter is vaccinated now, and she wants to see other kids during the school day. So, they’re trying to decide whether to enroll her at the local public school for next year. 

“We’re kind of hopeful that things will kind of return to normal by the fall,” Jakowitsch said. “But we’re watching things carefully.”

The decisions Jakowitsch and other parents around the country make drive how much money public school districts receive from state and local governments. Many schools have seen declining enrollment and attendance over the course of the pandemic. California, for example, announced that statewide enrollment dropped by nearly 2% this school year. Those kinds of changes mean school districts receive less money. But while revenue drops, expenses can take a while to figure out. 

“It’s not groups of 20 kids that, they all talk together and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in school in the third grade,’ and therefore it reduces how many teachers you need,” said Jannelle Kubinec, chief administrative officer of the education nonprofit WestEd. 

Instead, the students leaving are distributed throughout all the grades. Some families with younger students delayed kindergarten or turned to home-schooling, like Jakowitsch did. It’s a different case with older kids.

“What we saw at the high school levels are, kids were leaving early. Kids were getting jobs,” Kubinec said. And it can be hard to know if the changes are permanent. 

“Because of the last two years, nothing is clean. It is all messy,” said Kenny Rodrequez, who leads a school district in Grandview, Missouri, which is just south of Kansas City. Enrollment there has dropped 7.5% in the last couple of years.

“We don’t know if it’s a trend or not. We don’t know whether the last two years of the pandemic and those components — is that what’s going to be our new normal?”

Right now, Missouri is using pre-pandemic enrollment numbers to determine how much money districts receive, so Rodrequez has some time to figure it out.

That sort of accommodation is useful, according to Kim Rueben, a fellow in the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

“Ideally, if [districts] are given some flexibility, so they can adjust slowly to these trends, it would be easier than if they actually need to respond right away,” Rueben said. 

This is all happening as districts deal with inflation-driven cost increases. That means schools have fewer resources while they’re trying to figure out how to bring people in the door.

“If your revenue is generated based on who shows up, you also have to be responsive to, how do we continue to be a place that people want to come to?” said WestEd’s Kubinec. 

Because, in some ways, public schools are like businesses. Post-pandemic, more of their customers are choosing other options.

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