The post-World War II baby boom ended in the mid-1960s and, predictably, a decade later California public schools saw a steep drop in enrollment.
Across the state, schools have been closed and sites for new schools have been sold. This was, however, a short-lived phenomenon; within a few years, California experienced an increase in population due to immigration from other countries and a new baby boom.
The predictable result was a marked increase in school enrollment which eventually topped 6 million, then leveled off and in recent years declined. This month, the state Department of Education reported that for the first time in many years, enrollment had fallen below 6 million.
The slow erosion of enrollment that began half a decade ago stemmed from demographic factors, such as little or no growth in the state’s overall population, lower birth rates and an exodus of people, including children, to other States.
Over the past two years, school closures due to COVID-19 have accelerated enrollment losses, but the resumption of classroom instruction has not stemmed the bleeding. “Enrollment fell 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 previous year,” the ministry reported. of State Education. “This follows a steady decline in public school enrollment statewide since 2014-15.”
Data trends indicate that schools across the state will continue to see declining enrollment for the foreseeable future, creating a financial dilemma for local school districts since the state provides most of their money and assistance in depending on attendance.
Attendance is lower than enrollment because a number of students do not show up for class and if their absences are not excused, such as those due to 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 nearly 10 days per school year and about 40 percent are unexcused. Chronic truancy, 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 later in life. life and/or ending up in the criminal justice system.
School districts have been spared the financial consequences of declining enrollment and attendance during the pandemic, but longer-term declining enrollment will hit them hard unless the governor and legislature decide to drop funding. based on attendance in favor of another model.
Several alternatives have been proposed to the Legislative Assembly, such as shifting state assistance from attendance to enrollment. In his 2022-23 budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wants some sort of change, starting with a proposal allowing districts to use a three-year attendance average, rather than a single year, in their state aid calculations.
Newsom’s proposal indicates that the final budget negotiated in June will make a change, temporary or permanent, in the calculation of school aid. However, there is a risk of unintended consequences no matter how the formula is changed.
Moving from attendance to enrollment would seem like a minor change, but it would also reduce, if not eliminate, the financial incentive for school administrators to aggressively deal with chronic absenteeism. They would receive state assistance whether or not the children show up for class.
Such adjustments do not frankly address long-term enrollment declines. They are both an opportunity to dramatically increase spending per student and therefore improve outcomes, and a political minefield as interest groups jostle for bigger pieces of the pie.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for over 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at the age of 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media company explaining California policies and politics.