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Experts Respond to Better Together: How Can Districts and Charters Tackle Declining Enrollment?

When districts go into a major period of declining enrollment, schools can experience chaotic changes in staffing, course offerings, and student supports—as fixed costs eat up an increasingly large share of revenues, and teacher and student morale spirals downward. The harm this causes students should be unacceptable to everyone.

Yet this situation is occurring in more and more school districts around the country. The most recent example is Detroit Public Schools (DPS), which shrank from nearly 140,000 students to fewer than 50,000 over the last 10 years and was operated under a state-appointed emergency manager for most of that period. A threat of bankruptcy prompted the state to intervene and effectively buy out the DPS debt. In the next economic downturn, we are likely to see many more districts face this crisis. We cannot ignore this problem, nor can we address it without good evidence and thoughtful debate.

Central to the debate is how public charter schools factor into these declines. A growing narrative assigns them blame, but is that really the case? After all, many districts have suffered enrollment declines since the late 1960s, and even today many students who leave district schools go elsewhere, not to local charter schools. But, regardless of what’s to blame, should charter leaders be indifferent about whether students in district-run schools lose out as charters grow, or should they take action to help?

In early 2017, CRPE hosted a convening of education leaders to think through the issue, identify challenges, and propose potential solutions. The group included charter leaders and supporters, and state and school district leaders who have grappled with the consequences of enrollment loss and rapid charter growth. The result was this month’s report Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment.

The bottom line: Public charter schools are not to blame for districts’ financial struggles, but it is in their best interest to be part of a solution moving forward. This paper raises a number of possibilities on that front, and we hope it will prompt many more productive ideas, analyses, and local and national discussions in the future.

What will it take to make sure districts respond effectively to enrollment loss? What are specific things districts can do to improve their schools in a declining enrollment situation? What can districts and charters do together at the local level? What role should the state play? What is the risk of doing nothing?

To inform and advance an urgently needed dialogue, we have invited a number of district and charter leaders, thoughtful analysts, and other education experts to offer their own reflections on this complex and politically charged issue.

See below for a list of all blogs in the series:

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