Is Enrollment in the Largest School Districts Falling?

Enrollment in almost half of the largest school districts in the nation has declined over the last five years. Mokoto Rich of the New York Times claims that this has caused layoffs and closures which have destabilized neighborhoods around the US.

Rich claims that charter schools are having a significant impact in cannibalizing the student body — and their attached funding — of many large school districts. While charter schools represent only 5% of the overall national student body, the urban take-up of the charter school option is higher as parents seek to get their children out of an education environment which offers them very little in the way of an actual education.

A year ago, Tanya Moton withdrew her daughter, Dy’Mon Starks, 12, from a public school and signed her up for Graham Expeditionary Middle School, a nearby charter school.

“The classes were too big, the kids were unruly and didn’t pay attention to the teachers,” Ms. Moton said of the former school.

There is also concern from charter school critics that they take the most promising students and that the students who remain in public school are disproportionately needy and difficult to educate, causing additional budget pressure on schools already facing funding losses due to the per-pupil nature of the funding system. Rich claims that the drop-off in public school enrollment doesn’t simply mean a few teacher layoffs but that the funding cuts mean entire non-core programs such as music or foreign languages often need to be cut to balance the school’s budget.

“The fewer students we have, the fewer dollars we’re getting” from the state and federal government, said Matthew E. Stanski, chief financial officer of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, where enrollment has fallen by almost 5 percent in five years, despite sharp gains in nearby counties.

Mike Antonucci, writing on HotAir, claims that the conclusions in Rich’s article are wrong and are the result of cherry-picking data; Rich focuses on declining districts and ignores growing districts even when they still qualify as a place which suffered from the recent economic downturn:

The fact is: Total enrollment in all U.S. schools grew by 0.3 percent between 2005 and 2010, while enrollment in the 100 largest school districts declined 0.4 percent. That doesn’t look like a very significant gap to me. There has been a gradual move of the populace from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and Mountain states. That’s about the only trend I can discern from the enrollment data.