The COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every facet of American life, and a huge area has been our education system. Declining public confidence in K-12 schools, along with missing students, has had a dramatic impact on student enrollment in public schools, with disastrous consequences for school funding. In fact, a Gallup survey found that Americans’ confidence in our public schools dropped 9 percentage points in 2021, compared to 2020.
Prior to the pandemic, birth rates had been declining in the United States every year since 2008, which means public school enrollment is expected to continue to decline through 2029. This is particularly stark in my state of Vermont, which has the lowest fertility rate in the world. nation from 2015 to 2020. Fast forward to today, and more and more families are choosing to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools.
A 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 while working full-time, and for many, private school or homeschooling provides consistency in education.
Combine parents finding alternative learning options for their children with millions of missing students missing in our school systems, and the result is that the United States is experiencing a 3% drop in the number of reported students attending public schools in the 2020-21 school year.
Since school budgets are often determined by enrollment numbers, schools will likely receive reduced funding in future years, leaving them with fewer dollars allocated to staff and student resources. And yet students are falling behind in their academic and social-emotional learning – known as unfinished learning – which means schools will need more funding to support students who need to catch up. their education.
Bottom line – states and districts need to do more to rebuild trust in the U.S. public school system, work to re-engage missing students, and ultimately shift their thinking about how they approach budgeting for future school years. This involves listening to parents’ views and incorporating their feedback into school improvement plans. It also requires understanding where missing students have gone and building a proactive solution to reconnect them.
For enrollment factors over which we have less control, we must ensure responsible, strategic and responsive budget planning. This may require tough decisions based on accurate enrollment projections to ensure that all students can continue to maximize their learning in schools. States and districts should consider:
Review how districts calculate their student enrollment projections, taking into account enrollment history, community demographic trends, and planned real estate developments;
Re-evaluate their school funding formulas to ensure they adequately address student needs and address disparities in per-student spending between schools and districts;
Review the school planning process to ensure that federal relief funding will contribute to both immediate student needs and long-term improvements; and
Make tough decisions to eliminate or consolidate schools or programs as needed, particularly when done in favor of student and staff welfare.
Looking back on that moment, I fear that extended school closures have been a huge mistake for student learning and mental health, and ultimately for school finances. Poor planning in response to reduced enrollment could impact the long-term well-being of public school students and staff.
Therefore, what we do in the future will be key to ensuring that our students have the necessary resources, services and support staff in schools to succeed.
Jim Douglas is a former Governor of Vermont and a member of the Board of Governors of the Bipartisan Policy Center.