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The Forces Behind Declining Enrollment and a New Way Forward

Our report, Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment, takes an honest look at an urgent problem that has long divided education leaders. To help inform and advance a thoughtful discussion, we invited a number of experts to share their views on this complex and politically charged issue.

Public school enrollments in the U.S. rose from 41 million in 1990 to almost 51 million today. That’s a nearly 25 percent increase in 27 years—and the growth has been almost constant over that period, albeit much slower during the past decade. NCES projects that nearly 1.5 million more students will further swell the ranks of American public education by 2024.

Why, then, is enrollment decline an issue for schools and school systems? There are, as always, two possible—and obvious—explanations for why the number of kids attending a particular school or district shrinks even as national totals rise.

First, families may move from one community or region to another, as in the well- known shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt that’s been evident since the 1970s—a major demographic transformation brought about by economic changes (and the pursuit of better weather). That’s why Arizona today has nine House members versus three in 1970—and why Michigan has fourteen now versus nineteen then.

Second, families may change their child’s school—by shifting to a nearby district, by availing themselves of public school choice within the district, by opting to home-school, or by transferring to a private or charter school.

Private school enrollments in America are slowly shrinking, but the home-schooling population is rising and charter school enrollments are going strong. Indeed, my co-authors and I reported—to our own surprise—in a 2016 book that “charters have accounted for the entire increase in U.S. public school enrollments since 2006.”

Nobody running a school or district likes to lose students. Downsizing is painful. It’s so much easier to grow. The kids who exit almost never do so in ways that conform to district budgets and staffing ratios. Instead of emptying an entire building all at once, for example, there’s apt to be a slow hemorrhage from a lot of schools, classrooms, and grade levels, making it hard to adjust resources, assign teachers, etc. Consolidating the losses is likely to mean closing a whole school, which brings its own agonies.

This isn’t much of a problem in Sun Belt communities, where total enrollments are rising and where charter schools actually provide something of a pressure-relief valve for districts, but we can surely understand the pain of district officials in other parts of the country who see their student populations shrink even as those of nearby charters prosper. It’s no surprise that some of those officials—echoed by teachers union leaders and friendly politicians—blame charters as the cause of their decline. While it’s absolutely true that families are opting for charters instead of district schools (check out Eva Moskowitz’s terrific new memoir for a vivid account of how that has played out in New York City) and that their reasons generally include dissatisfaction with district offerings, that reality doesn’t salve the wounded budgets of the districts they are forsaking.

Enter CRPE with a timely and useful policy paper titled Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment. Replete with valuable information, sage advice, and constructive suggestions, it’s the product of a symposium in Houston (Sun Belt! Pre-Harvey!) supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Its advice will, however, cause some discomfort to both district and charter sectors, as it insists that the former must own their academic-quality and customer-satisfaction failings while the latter need “to have a credible answer to concerns about harm to districts.”

In the presence of goodwill and a shared preoccupation with the well-being of students and communities rather than adult and institutional interests, this advice will work well. Where public education’s two sectors just want to eat each others’ lunch, however, cadres of United Nations peacekeepers may be needed.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow & President Emeritus, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


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