Lodi News-Sentinel

Declining enrollment clobbers California’s schools


The post-World War II baby boom ended in the mid-1960s and — predictabl­y — a decade later, California’s public schools saw a sharp drop in enrollment.

Throughout the state, schools were shuttered and sites for new schools were sold off. It was, however, a short-lived phenomenon; within a few years California was experienci­ng a surge of population driven by immigratio­n from other countries and a new baby boom.

The predictabl­e result was a marked increase in school enrollment that eventually topped 6 million, then leveled off and in recent years has been drifting downward. This month, the state Department of Education reported that for the first time in many years, enrollment had dropped below 6 million.

The slow erosion in enrollment that began a half-decade ago stemmed from demographi­c factors, such as virtually no growth, or even a decline, in the state’s overall population, lower birthrates and an outflow of people, including children, to other states.

In the last two years, school closures due to COVID-19 accelerate­d enrollment losses but the resumption of in-classroom instructio­n did not stem the hemorrhage. “Enrollment is down from 6,002,523 in 2020–21 to 5,892,240 in 2021–22, a decrease of more than 110,000 students and 1.8% from the prior year,” the state Department of Education reported.

“This follows a steady decline in public school enrollment statewide since


The data trends indicate that the state’s schools will continue to see enrollment declines for the foreseeabl­e future and that creates a financial dilemma for local school districts since the state provides most of their money and aid based on attendance.

Attendance runs lower than enrollment because a certain number of students don’t show up for classes and if their absences are not excused, such as those for illness, their schools lose state aid.

Absenteeis­m is no small matter. Statewide, the Department of Education calculated two years ago, students are absent an average of almost 10 days each school year and about 40% are not excused.

Chronic absenteeis­m, or truancy, is a serious problem, especially in large urban school districts, not only costing them state aid but making truants more likely to fail in later life and/or wind up in the criminal justice system.

School districts have been spared the financial consequenc­es of enrollment and attendance declines during the pandemic, but the longerterm enrollment slide will hit them hard unless the governor and the Legislatur­e decide to jettison attendance-based financing in favor of some other model.

Several alternativ­es have been floated in the Legislatur­e, such as shifting state aid from attendance to enrollment. In his proposed 2022-23 budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom says he wants some kind of change, starting with a proposal to allow districts to use a threeyear average of attendance, rather than a single year, in their state aid calculatio­ns

Newsom’s proposal indicates that the final budget that’s negotiated in June will make a change, either temporary or permanent, in how school aid is calculated. However, there’s a risk of unintended consequenc­es no matter how the formula is rejiggered.

Shifting from attendance to enrollment would seem to be a minor change, but it also would reduce, or even eliminate, the financial incentive for school administra­tors to aggressive­ly deal with chronic absenteeis­m. They would get the state aid regardless of whether kids actually show up in class.

Nor does such tweaking deal forthright­ly with long-term enrollment declines.

They are both an opportunit­y to significan­tly increase per-pupil spending and thus improve outcomes, and a political minefield as interest groups scramble for bigger pieces of the pie.

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