Families are leaving public schools. How will that change education?

Focus Transformation

Families are leaving public schools. How will that change education?

The pandemic led to enrollment declines in public schools across the United States. As more parents mull other options, how are districts rethinking their bottom line – and their mission?

Little hands shoot up. One by one, they share their thoughts, some pausing to find the right words.

“She is fun.”

“She plays with us outside.”

“She helps us learn new things.”

Their bite-size answers set the stage for the unveiling of the Ducky Award, Dr. Enfield’s signature way of recognizing Washoe County School District employees who deserve praise. In this case, a fellow colleague had nominated the school’s three kindergarten teachers for their hard work and dedication. Jodee McLean – the first teacher honored – blushes and smiles while accepting the small yellow duck. 

Her students aren’t the only ones who learn about the recognition. Later that day, Dr. Enfield shares photos of the kindergarten teachers on social media. They exist among other posts celebrating student accomplishments and showcasing programs.

As far as the superintendent is concerned, public schools are not always public enough about praising their own people or progress. So she’s on a mission to change that while also not glossing over room for improvement.

In an era of declining enrollment in K-12 public schools, Dr. Enfield considers it crucial to show “why the local public school is a school of choice.”

It’s more than just a sentimental statement. Enrollment dips cost the district money, which eventually can mean fewer services, programs, and resources for students.

Picture a funnel. Federal, state, and local money gather at the top before flowing to districts and, ultimately, schools on a per-pupil basis. Other funding streams exist, often earmarked for specific purposes, but district finances rely heavily on those per-pupil dollars.

Even slight deviations can cause financial problems. Case in point: The Washoe County School District budgeted for 61,923 students this academic year, but 1,145 students didn’t show up. The decline created a revenue shortfall of almost $8.4 million.

The district’s situation isn’t unique. Nationwide, U.S. school districts large and small are grappling with slumping enrollments that are putting a dent in budgets and, in some cases, forcing painful decisions about school closures. 

The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools fell by more than a million students at the onset of the pandemic – from 50.8 million in fall 2019 to 49.4 million in fall 2020. The federal government expects an overall decline to continue, leading to 47.3 million prekindergarten through 12th grade students attending public schools in 2030.

There is no single explanation for the drop in public school students, some of whom have been called “missing kids” because they seemingly disappeared during the pandemic. Instead, education officials point to multiple factors, which can vary by region, including declining birthrates, the rise of home schooling, more families choosing private or charter schools, changing migration patterns, and older students who dropped out to join the workforce.

Parents opting to skip or delay their child’s kindergarten year may also be playing a role. 

“Changes in enrollment inevitably mean school districts are going to have to make hard choices,” says Ray Hart, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.

And that’s why Dr. Enfield – seven months into her tenure leading the Washoe County School District – is unabashedly boosting the good occurring in public classrooms while also calling for greater state investments. 

Better funding, she says, would enable the district to pay teachers more and provide smaller class sizes, thereby making the system a more enticing option for families. 

“A robustly funded public school system is going to be stronger and more appealing to families and serve kids better,” she says. “That’s just the reality.”

Chasing enrollment in Washoe County

Most of Washoe County lies on the eastern slope of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. The Truckee River cuts through downtown Reno — the county seat nicknamed “the biggest little city in the world” – not far from casinos, parks, coffee shops, and eateries. The other large municipality in the county is Sparks, which sits east of Reno and has more housing, shopping, industrial areas, and a marina.

While small compared to its southern sister Las Vegas, whose metropolitan area makes up the lion’s share of Nevada’s population, much of Reno’s story over the past decade has revolved around growth. A massive industrial complex with tenants such as Tesla, Google, and Walmart brought scores of jobs and, in turn, people to northwest Nevada.

Migration from California and elsewhere also brought new residents. Housing prices soared as demand blossomed. And a Brookings Metro analysis labeled Reno as one of the few American cities that grew more rapidly in 2020-21 compared with the prior year.

But the same can’t be said for the Washoe County School District serving the region. The public school system’s enrollment has decreased 4.3% since the 2018-19 school year. 

“I don’t know that we can say it’s just a mass exodus from public education entirely,” says Dr. Enfield, who came to the district in July after serving as superintendent of Highline Public Schools in the Seattle area. “I think it’s an exodus based on need and a completely unanticipated reality that we were all forced to confront during COVID.”

A recent staff presentation to the school board pegged lower birthrates, inflated housing costs, and movement toward charter and private schools as the primary drivers. The district projects another loss of 1,099 students next school year tied to that combination of factors.

In Nevada, public charter schools can be sponsored by traditional public school districts or the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority. Since the 2019-20 academic year, enrollment at charter-authority-sponsored schools has grown by 10,250 students. Six of those brick-and-mortar charter schools operate within Washoe County. The Washoe County School District also sponsors several other charter schools.

“I want our schools to be excellent, and I want every district school to be excellent,” says Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority. “And I want families to have the difficult job of picking between a lot of excellent schools.”

As a whole, Nevada’s public school enrollment has seen a nearly 2% decline since the 2019-20 school year, according to an analysis by The Associated Press, Stanford University’s Big Local News project, and Stanford education professor Thomas Dee. Private school enrollment increased by 8% during that same time span. Home schooling likely contributed to the public school enrollment decline as well, though Nevada’s education department does not track that data.

Seventh grader Kylie Skolnick is one of the students the Washoe County School District lost. Her parents, unhappy with a variety of issues at the public middle school where Kylie attended sixth grade, began home-schooling her this year. 

Maria Skolnick, her mother, says concerns about curriculum direction, school safety, and what she and her husband viewed as an erosion of parental rights drove their decision. Core academic subjects, she says, seemed on the back burner as social justice and LGBTQ issues gained more prominence in the school setting.

“It was just this separation of allowing the school district to take charge of what they felt was necessary or deemed important for the kids to be learning,” says Mrs. Skolnick, who felt like it was “kind of pushing parents out.”

Their younger daughter, a fourth grader, remains in a public elementary school because they have not observed the same issues there. Meanwhile, Kylie studies at home and once a week attends in-person classes with a home-school gathering called Light House Reno.

The group meets at a church, where, on a recent afternoon, teacher Kari Clauson leads a discussion about how to write short, impactful sentences. Fourth through eighth graders surround a table in the small classroom that contains a large, wooden cross in one corner.

Interest in Light House Reno, which serves roughly 35 children and charges fees based on the number of classes they attend, has surged since it launched at the beginning of this school year, says Rachel Radmacher, the group’s founder and administrator. She expects the number of children attending to double next year. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to do it. We might split it into two days,” Mrs. Radmacher says. “And I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to offer more classes. I’d like to start a theater program and I would like to have a Spanish class.”

Two of Mrs. Radmacher’s three children are home-schooled and part of Light House Reno; her middle son, who has been diagnosed with autism, attends the public school district to receive support services. Ideological concerns about public school curriculum also drove her decision to home-school.

Seeking help from legislators

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to determine the degree to which ideological concerns and broader culture wars are influencing enrollment shifts. 

As a public school leader, Dr. Enfield says she encourages families to reach out and ask questions. She suspects some perceptions about public schools have evolved from hearsay.

Dr. Enfield says she can’t dwell on it, nor can she change every parent’s mind.

“I will never judge the choice a family makes for their child when it comes to their education,” she says. “They know their child. They know what their child needs. My job is to make sure that their public school is a viable option.”

But there is another group of impressionable people she hopes to sway: state lawmakers. 

Nevada’s citizen legislature, which meets every other year, convened in early February for its 120-day lawmaking session. A day after her visit to Marvin Moss Elementary School, which saw enrollment decline by 50 students at the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Enfield spoke with legislators in Carson City.

In her mind, adequate funding and enrollment have a “definite correlation” given the domino effect it would have on teacher recruitment, class sizes, and overall resources. That’s the message she has been sharing with state lawmakers.

“A lot of the things that families would like to see, we could provide if we had adequate funding,” she says.

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Nevada’s public school enrollment decline is more modest than what other states are experiencing, including neighboring California. But its historically low per-pupil funding means districts were already operating on thin margins. A recent Education Law Center report gave Nevada F grades in three funding fairness measurements.

The problem with enrollment declines is that many fixed costs of running a school system – building and maintenance needs, for instance – remain the same, says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“What I would call lack of investment in Nevada’s public education system by successive legislators and governors for decades … is going to come home to roost,” he says. “And these districts are really going to have a tough time.”

The Washoe County School District overcame its budget shortfall this academic year by moving 60 teachers who had been on special assignment – doing various types of work, such as professional development or supporting staff – back to the classroom, saving more than $2 million, Dr. Enfield says. Contingency funds covered the remaining gap.

Other districts have turned to federal COVID-19 relief money to plug enrollment-related budget holes, says Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. The availability of those one-time federal funds – most of which must be spent by September 2024 – has created a situation, she says, where districts have not “reckoned with” the financial implications of enrollment declines.

The exodus of more than a million students from public schools nationwide, however, has led to school closures in places such as Oakland, California, and Jefferson County in Colorado. Bellevue School District in Washington is reviewing plans to do the same.

And while many education officials shy away from discussing that scenario, Dr. Roza says that can be a mistake.

“I think there is this wishful thinking happening that there’s got to be a better way than closing schools,” she says. “And the only other alternative is kids go to these zombie schools where there are very few services and very few adults who work there.”

If any city knows the effects of dwindling enrollment all too well, it’s Chicago. Mass migration out of the Windy City, among other factors, led to a 25% enrollment decrease within Chicago Public Schools over the past decade. 

In 2013, the school board voted to close 49 schools. Now, a moratorium on school closings in Chicago exists until 2025. 

While students may see smaller class sizes when enrollment shrinks, they often don’t have access to many electives or extracurricular activities, says Hal Woods, chief of policy at Kids First Chicago. The nonprofit organization has been studying the enrollment crisis and boosting parent engagement around the issue.

“It just sets up a very, very challenging environment for students to succeed – both the student outcomes but even being able to offer, like, a quality experience for students and faculty in the school building,” he says.

Consuelo Martinez, who lives in the South Side of Chicago, is part of a team affiliated with Kids First Chicago that has convened parents to discuss enrollment dips and study their root causes. Over more than a decade of having children in public schools, she says, through a translator, she has seen firsthand the effects of shrinking enrollment. At her son’s school, for example, first and second graders were taught in one room.

Her son, now 21, is in college. Her 19-year-old daughter, who has been diagnosed with autism, remains a Chicago Public Schools student and is receiving extended support services.

The group Ms. Martinez is working with plans to make recommendations for policy changes. It’s an acknowledgment that Chicago Public Schools cannot solve the problem on its own.

“This is going to actually require government, private sector, [and the] civic community coming together to really address some of these root causes – systemic issues – that are causing slower growth, but also causing families to leave the city of Chicago as well,” Mr. Woods says.

“We could be surprised”

Back in Nevada, public education leaders say school closures are not imminent in the state’s two largest districts.

The Clark County School District in the Las Vegas area saw its enrollment fall by nearly 2%, or roughly 5,800 students, this academic year. That puts its student count in the ballpark of 314,000, still keeping its position as the nation’s fifth-largest public school district.

Jason Goudie, the chief financial officer for the Las Vegas district, says he considers the decrease “somewhat flat.” In other words, it has not caused a fiscal panic.

“We are still an overcrowded district,” he says. “We still don’t have enough schools, enough capacity.”

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, is in the midst of a five- to 10-year facilities modernization plan. It will look at anticipated growth spots, where a new school may be warranted, while also evaluating whether any consolidation should occur, Dr. Enfield says.

The bottom line, the superintendent says, is about making smart decisions for how to allocate resources. She says this all with an air of optimism, though.

Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo, a Republican who took office in January, has announced his proposed biennial budget, which would pump $2 billion more into public schools. He estimates it would increase per-pupil funding by more than $2,000.

Anything could happen, of course, as his budget wends its way through the state legislature, where competing funding requests go head to head. Dr. Enfield plans to make her presence felt in the state capital as an education messenger of sorts.

She’s also not ruling out the possibility of the enrollment situation reversing itself.

“I know that we’re predicted to be down,” she says. “And I still think we could be surprised in the other direction.” 


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