The Complexity of One School District’s Declining Enrollment

New Orleans, like many Maryland school districts, is facing declining public school enrollment, but has a unique set of circumstances complicating strategies to address the looming crisis. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country, our public schools had to quickly adjust to new and creative ways of serving kids. As schools moved to virtual learning, the combined burdens of working from home, managing virtual learning, and caring for family resulted in some Maryland families turning to other options for schooling during the pandemic for a variety of reasons.

The mix of hybrid in-person/virtual schooling, temporary independent homeschooling, and general inconsistency in attendance during the pandemic has resulted in lower enrollment than predicted for the last two cycles.

The problem is not only Maryland-wide, but nationwide.

The New Orleans example

Declining enrollment in one New Orleans all-charter school district is a symptom of a greater problem than pandemic-related decline: decreasing birthrates and population. According to education reporting and policy analysis site The74:

There are some 3,400 unfilled seats in New Orleans Public Schools, and birth rates are falling. The size of incoming kindergarten classes has fallen 17 percent since 2013, while growth in the city’s population flattened between 2015 and 2020.

This news signals an impending crisis, Superintendent Henderson Lewis told Orleans Parish School Board members at a recent meeting, potentially leaving district and school leaders scrambling to cope with a corresponding decrease in state and federal funding.

Lewis warned that losing enrollment can set off a vicious cycle in which a school doesn’t have enough students to pay for a full menu of academic and extracurricular offerings, in turn affecting its ability to attract new families.

Unlike in Maryland where local education agencies (LEAs) leaders can set new policies and initiatives to address such a crisis, in New Orleans, the nation’s first all-charter district, it’s not at all clear the superintendent and school board have the authority to do so. Furthermore, in an average LEA, leaders can “shift resources from one school to another to compensate in the short term.” In New Orleans, however, budgets are decided by individual schools — “part of a series of freedoms granted by state law.”

As such, New Orleans public school leaders are looking to work with the Louisiana Charter School Association on potential reorganizing and downsizing of existing schools, but the Association isn’t on board:

If you ask her, says Caroline Roemer, head of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, “My answer is going to be no.”

In the past, the association has joined lawsuits to counter what it views as impingements on the authority of its members. It intervened in court to counter legal attacks on charter school funding and has fought at the statehouse to preserve the laws granting New Orleans schools autonomy.

NOLA Public Schools leaders say they are not threatening to close down any particular school, but hoping to start a conversation about the impending problem. The best mechanism for “right-sizing” the 48,000-student district, they say, may be for school leaders to come together to voluntarily consider reorganizing.

Maryland’s predicament

In Maryland, if school enrollment drops, even presumably temporarily, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, the total share of state aid to education also drops — because of that per pupil funding requirement described in the previous sections of this post.

Despite a drop in enrollment, counties have to fund education at Maintenance of Effort, or MOE, meaning. This means that despite having less students in classrooms and subsequently less in state per pupil funding, counties have to fund at least the same level as the year before — when there were more students enrolled and therefore greater state aid. Counties, in short, do not “get off the hook” in these situations.

Subsequently, the General Assembly has passed patch-over fixes the last two legislative sessions to support counties and school systems experiencing likely temporary declines in enrollment. It’s to be seen if legislative leaders will consider the same during the 2023 session, but the data is clear that some Maryland jurisdictions are still struggling to attract kids back into schools.

At the MACo Winter Conference session, “Public Education 101: Key Partners for Success,” an expert panel will discuss how county officials can work with local and state partners to fund and manage public education. Speakers include representatives of key partnerships, and the discussion will highlight strategies and best practices to communicating and working together.

Read the full report from The74 on New Orleans.

Learn more about the importance of enrollment in Maryland’s public education financing.

MACo’s Winter Conference, “Hit the Ground Running,” will be held at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, MD from January 4-6, 2023 (with a pre-conference orientation for new county officials on January 3). 

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: