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How Reporters Can Better Cover Enrollment Shifts at Public Schools

School finance experts tackle key questions and provide tips for reporters.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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Some urban school districts across the country were already grappling with shrinking enrollment when COVID hit. But for many, the pandemic accelerated those student losses, with major implications for their budgets and stability.

For some, the historic influx of federal COVID relief dollars is softening the fiscal blow in the short term. But with birthrates continuing to decline and the effects of a “COVID baby bust” looming, how can public schools adjust to plummeting enrollment — even as they scramble to address the outbreak’s academic and mental health fallout?

Two experts on school finance — Laura Anderson of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University and Kristin Blagg of the nonprofit Urban Institute — tackled that key question in an Education Writers Association-sponsored session during the 2022 SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas.

They offered reporters guidance on how to cover ongoing enrollment shifts, their impact on district finances — and efforts to use federal pandemic recovery dollars to navigate a precarious stretch for the country’s education system.

Declining public school enrollment

Student numbers play a central role in determining how most states pass on funding to districts — and how districts in turn divvy up dollars among their campuses. Some states also factor in attendance, which has similarly taken a hit during the pandemic in many districts. Anderson recommended a website now called FundEd as a resource for better understanding state formulas.

Last school year, public school enrollment fell 3% across the board — wiping out modest gains over the past decade nationally and speeding up losses for urban districts from Los Angeles to New York City. Definitive data on this year’s numbers is still in the works, but the losses are expected to be even steeper, with some urban districts reporting dramatic drops. Portland, Oregon, is projecting its enrollment will be down 8% — and 20% at the elementary level — in the fall compared with 2019-20.

And double-digit enrollment decreases in preschool and kindergarten — grades some families sat out because they are often not mandatory — mean that districts will soon see an influx of students less prepared for school than their peers.

Hopes that enrollment would rebound quickly don’t seem to be panning out, Blagg said.

“At first, it looked like it would be a sharp enrollment decline, and then students would come back,” she said. “Now we’re seeing more persistent and deeper enrollment declines that have to be managed.”

So where does the federal funding infusion come in? Some districts, such as Minneapolis, appear to be using the money to shore up school budgets in the face of declining enrollment and hold on to pre-existing teacher and staff positions, Anderson said.

“This is an opportunity to think about recovering students,” she said. “Unfortunately, investments

in new staff or salary increases are not being linked to more learning time – exactly what so many students lost.”

Reporting on Enrollment and Absenteeism

Here are some coverage tips Anderson and Blagg shared:

1. Explore whether (and how) districts are using their extra cash to address enrollment and attendance challenges proactively:

Anderson would like to see more districts use their COVID dollars and other resources to try to counteract the downward trend in enrollment and attendance, rather than merely backfilling budgets until the money runs out, she said.

Some innovative approaches Anderson highlighted: 

  • The Long Beach school district in California is paying high schoolers to tutor younger students in a bid to re-engage them and lure some away from jobs that might be tougher to juggle with school.
  • The Austin district in Texas tied staff raises to hitting an enrollment target, counting on the power of teacher outreach — a controversial move that so far does not appear to have paid off.

She also said giving some of the money to schools to spend flexibly can make for a more responsive approach to enrollment and attendance challenges at a local level.

Anderson noted that some large urban districts, such as Boston and Chicago, have done that, but the amounts of flexible dollars tend to be modest. With them, school leaders are able to respond more nimbly to enrollment challenges in real time.

Tutoring is one popular strategy to help students catch up academically, but on some campuses that have struggled with lackluster attendance this school year, the prospect of losing disengaged students might be a more pressing issue. So those principals might use their flexible dollars on efforts to boost attendance instead.

2. Distinguish pandemic relief spending plans from actual spending: 

It is important for journalists to scrutinize the plans individual school districts have developed to make use of the federal COVID-recovery dollars, the experts said.

But reporters should remember that districts can and do veer from these spending plans and budgets. In some cases, staffing shortages and other hurdles have prevented districts from delivering on their recovery visions.

“We are seeing huge diversions from plans to actual spending,” Anderson said. “When reporting spending, we want to make sure we are reporting on what districts are actually buying.”

Experts also said reporters should press districts for evidence that their investments are paying off for students: How are they tracking results and sharing them with families and others? Are these investments sustainable beyond fall 2024, the deadline for districts to spend the money, or is there a clear plan to avoid a fiscal cliff when the money runs out?

3. Dig into how districts are managing staffing costs in the face of enrollment losses: 

With salary and benefit costs making up roughly 90% of the average school budget, adjusting to the financial fallout of enrollment declines almost inevitably involves losing people. Layoffs and attrition are especially disruptive during a time when districts are trying to recover from the pandemic’s damage — from student disengagement to a rise in behavior issues. In fact, some school leaders have argued districts should use their federal dollars to bring more adults into school buildings to address pressing student needs, even if that means letting these hires go when the money runs out.

“The idea of some temporary extra hands is really appealing,” Blagg said. “But you have to be really clear about the temporary nature of these supports.”

In many cases, it might make more sense to step up efforts to help support staff earn teaching credentials or other certification — or to reassign employees and staff up at schools with the highest needs. Some schools are investing in their parents: enlisting them as temporary workers, paying them to read to their children or ensuring students are showing up for class.

4. Question what input your districts are getting into their federal spending: 

One of the few strings the feds attached to school funding in the American Rescue Plan, which brought the third and by far the largest infusion of recovery dollars, was requiring that districts engage in “meaningful consultation” with families, employees and others before deciding how to spend the money.

Significant departures from original spending plans should involve seeking fresh community input, Anderson said.

“There’s a laundry list of stakeholders they need to communicate with, and it’s fair to engage them again when plans change,” she said.

This type of employee and community engagement can yield important insights, Anderson said: The Edunomics Lab consulted some teachers who said they would be willing to give up some benefits or chip in more for them if that helps their districts avoid layoffs and salary reductions, for example.

Additional Resources

A variety of other resources are available on enrollment shifts and chronic absenteeism.

  • The think tank FutureEd and the nonprofit Attendance Works teamed up to produce an “Attendance Playbook” that identifies promising strategies to address chronic absenteeism in the COVID era. Future Ed has analyzed recovery spending plans by districts, including investments to improve enrollment and attendance.
  • The think tank at Georgetown University also published a report, drawing in part on data from Everyday Labs, that examines pandemic attendance trends in five school districts.
  • A recent piece by reporter Linda Jacobson at The 74 takes a deep dive into enrollment disruptions in the pandemic, drawing in part on data from Burbio, a company that tracks COVID-related education trends.
  • Also, check out the recording of this EWA webinar, “Covering Student Absenteeism in the COVID-19 Era.”