Enrollment in public schools in California drops below $ 6 million following the Corona virus

A school bus dropped off students at Mira Mesa High School.  Photo by Chris Stone
A school bus dropped off students at Mira Mesa High School. Photo by Chris Stone

For the first time since the turn of the century, California has less than 6 million students attending public schools.

According to new data released by the California Department of Education, enrollment in public schools continues to decline faster than before the epidemic, raising fears of further budget cuts and long-term financial instability in schools.

Among the main data released:

  • State enrollment dropped more than 110,000 students to 5,892,240 during the current school year, a 1.8% drop from last year but less sharp than a 2.6% drop during the first year of the epidemic.
  • Registration for charter schools has also dropped for the first time since 2014 at least.
  • Kindergarten enrollment has risen, though not approaching pre-epidemic levels.
  • And another 9,000 students attend private schools, an increase of 1.7%, but that does not explain much of the drop-out rate from public schools.

For the better part of a decade, enrollment in public schools has been steadily declining in California, largely due to a shortage of affordable housing, education officials across the state said. When the epidemic hit California, early job loss collided with this trend, exacerbating the decline.

Richard Berra, a trustee in the United San Diego United States, the second-largest county in the state, said families are leaving the county, especially those in cool areas, which has caused disproportionate losses to schools in those neighborhoods. Then workers began to lose jobs in 2020, and more families were forced to relocate.

“When we opened the schools last year, those schools had a lower personal attendance,” Berra said. “Just more expensive for people with children to live in California.”

In the years before the epidemic, enrollment in traditional public schools that were not registered decreased by about 1% per year. However, in the first year of the epidemic enrollment dropped by more than 3%, or about 175,000 students.

Even enrollment in charter schools has dropped, losing 12,600 students this year, a significant reversal of historical trends. Since 2015, charter schools have only seen an increase each year of at least 10,000 students.

Officials at the California Department of Education had no clear explanation for this sudden drop.

The president of the California Charter Schools Association, Mirena Castrion, said the decline illustrates how charter schools “face the same nationwide challenges as non-charter public schools.” She called for equal funding for charters.

For non-charter schools, much of the decline in enrollment during the first year of the epidemic was due to tens of thousands of parents choosing not to enroll their children in kindergarten. Most of the campuses of the schools were closed at that time and children studied online.

This year, with the opening of school buildings, enrollment in kindergartens has risen to more than 7,000 students, and recovered slightly from the drop of 60,000 students last year.

However, enrollment numbers for first graders have dropped by 18,000 students this year – one of the sharpest declines for one grade – indicating that many kindergarten-aged students in 2020 did not return to first-grade public schools.

California Department of Education officials did not comment on where the students went. Some school district officials said they were also looking for answers.

“This is a problem at all levels,” said Bart Snyder of Capitol Advisors, a school district advocacy firm. “We’m just not sure where they went.”

Because most public schools in California are funded based on a combination of enrollment and attendance, small school districts are particularly prone to pain. Only a few students leaving can have large lumps of money taken down from their budgets.

“We have had a decline in enrollment since the turn of the century,” said Linda Irving, superintendent of Sevastopol Union School District. “The smaller a school becomes, the harder it becomes to provide quality programming, like music lessons.”

District 788 students have used one-time state grants to cover its costs, Irving said, but it needs a more permanent solution.

It can be depressing to work in a school where the student population is shrinking, she said. Managers have a marketing budget to attract more families, and yet they are forced to cut staff.

“I drove home from the gym yesterday, and I heard another inspector on the radio,” Irving said. “We compete against each other.”

Brett McFadden, superintendent of JDC High School Union, said a large portion of the residents in his rural community work in the services industry and were forced to look for other jobs when businesses closed during the plague. Others left recently, when the state began enforcing masking rules and issuing vaccine mandates.

“It’s hard to do exit interviews, but our assumption is that people left because of work,” McFadden said. “Or they left because private schools do not enforce mask seats.”

According to state data, Nevada Joint Union High enrollment was stable before the epidemic at around 2,800 students. As of Friday, McFadden said, registration stands at 2,605. He said he has lost 197 students since the school year began, which translates to more than $ 2 million in loss of funding.

“Registration rejection cannot be corrected,” he said. “I think we need to recognize that declining enrollment is part of a broader demographic trend that is happening in our country.”

The state is taking steps to soften the blow

State leaders are floating steps to reduce the pain of declining enrollment.

In his budget proposal Governor Gavin Newsum said he would allow school districts to use an average three-year attendance rate to calculate funding for next year. This can be a significant help, especially since attendance at most schools has plummeted during the year’s omicron leap.

State Sen. Anthony Fortentino, a Democrat from Glendale, enacted the Senate Act 830, which would pay counties based on enrollment instead of attendance.

While the policy debate over enrollment versus attendance-based funding has been going on for years, Fortentino said it was the right time to make the change because of the country’s surplus and the acute crisis of attendance drop and registration.

“School districts need to budget based on enrollment,” Fortentino said. “It does not make sense to punish them if you have absences during the year.”

Under his proposal, the districts would still be funded based on attendance but would be able to apply for additional money based on registration. The bill would require counties to use 30% of the additional funding to address chronic absences.

While these proposals may mitigate the fiscal effects of declining enrollments, district leaders still do not have a clear picture of why so many students are leaving. And they feel helpless to reverse the trend.

“Schools have responded to the public health crisis and tried to turn on the light, so when children disappear there is not much ability to chase after them and see what happened,” said Snyder, the lobbyist. “But I think it’s going to be a big focus when we get out of it.”

CalMatters is a public-interest press venture committed to explaining how the California Capitol operates and why it matters.

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