Schools need emergency plans of action for student enrollment shifts

March 29, 2022

The Hill Op-Ed

By Jim Douglas, former governor of Vermont, a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors Council, and esteemed board member of The Hunt Institute.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every facet of American life, and one huge area has been our education system. The public’s decreasing trust in K-12 schools, along with missing students, has greatly impacted student enrollment in public schools, leading to dire consequences for school funding. In fact, one Gallup survey found that Americans’ confidence in our public schools declined by 9 percentage points in 2021, compared to 2020.

Prior to the pandemic, birth rates had been declining in the U.S every year since 2008, which means public school enrollment is projected to continue decreasing through 2029. This is especially salient in my state of Vermont, which has had the lowest fertility rate in the nation from 2015 to 2020. Flash forward to today, and more families are choosing to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools.

One district superintendent I recently spoke with expressed concern that parents are opting for alternative schooling due to the now unpredictable nature of public schools remaining open during the pandemic. Parents are tired of juggling remote and in-person learning all while working full-time jobs, and for many, private school or homeschooling ensures consistency in instruction.

Combine parents finding alternative learning options for their children with millions of missing students unaccounted for in our school systems, and the result is the U.S. experiencing a 3 percent drop in the number of reported students attending public schools during the 2020-21 school year.

Because school budgets are often determined by enrollment numbers, schools are likely to receive reduced funding in the coming years, leaving them with fewer dollars allocated to staffing and student resources. And yet, students are behind in their academic and social-emotional learning — known as unfinished learning — meaning schools will require more funding to support students who need to catch up in their instruction.

Bottom line — states and districts must do more to rebuild trust in America’s public school system, work to reengage missing students, and ultimately shift their thinking on how they approach budgeting for upcoming school years. This involves listening to parents’ perspectives and incorporating their input into school improvement plans. It also requires understanding where missing students have gone and constructing a proactive solution to reconnect them.

For enrollment factors we have less control over, we must ensure responsible, strategic and responsive budgetary planning. This may require tough decisions based on accurate enrollment projections to ensure all students can continue to maximize their learning in schools. States and districts should consider:

  • Reviewing how districts calculate their student enrollment projections, with consideration for historical enrollment, community population trends and anticipated housing developments;

  • Reassessing their school funding formulas to ensure they sufficiently account for student needs and addressing disparities in per-pupil spending across schools and districts;

  • Revisiting the school planning process to ensure that federal relief funding will contribute to both immediate student needs and long-term improvements; and

  • Making hard decisions to eliminate or consolidate schools or programs as needed, especially when done in favor of student and staff well-being.

As we look back on this moment in time, I fear we’ll see that extended school closures were a huge error for student learning and mental health, and ultimately for school finance. Poor planning in response to reduced enrollment could impact the long-term well-being of students and staff in public schools.

Therefore, what we do moving forward will be critical for ensuring our students have the necessary resources, services and staffing support in schools to succeed.

Jim Douglas is former governor of Vermont and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors Council.

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