Under-enrollment: “Lots at Stake for Districts and Kids”

Education analyst Chad Aldeman: $190 billion in ESSER funds & ‘hold harmless’ rules have allowed districts to delay difficult school closure conversations. That’s a mistake.

Education policy analyst and expert Chad Aldeman recently wrote about under-enrollment in American schools and what’s at stake for school districts and students. He opened his article by posing, “In other words, do districts open new schools as student enrollments rise, and do they close schools as enrollment falls?”

Citing research from Princeton economist Richard DiSalvo, he quickly answered the question:

On average, districts have an easier time growing when demand is rising than they do shrinking when enrollments fall. It’s also comparatively easier for districts to adjust staffing levels up or down than it is to adjust their physical footprint in the form of school buildings.

Aldeman: Closing a school, in general, is bad for students, but it’s worse when districts have to shutter many at once.

DiSalvo calls the phenomenon of failing to scale down schools as enrollment drops, ultimately leading to more schools closing, “adjustment inertia.” To prevent this, school districts should gradually scale down the number of schools as enrollment drops instead of waiting until many are forced to close.

Aldeman writes:

Closing a school, in general, is bad for students, but it’s worse when districts have to shutter many at once. In Philadelphia, for example, researchers found that achievement among both displaced students and those at the receiving school fell more as the number of displaced students rose. In other words, the sheer size of the closure made the fallout worse.

According to Aldeman, in addition to being strategic in the timing of closures, districts can also take steps to mitigate the harm done to students: “When districts put supports for displaced students in place, they can fare better academically than they did in their former schools.”

The threat of under-enrollment

It is estimated that public school enrollment nationwide will fall in 42 states. West Virginia is estimated to suffer the most percentage-wise, with a projected decline of 20%. Numerically, the biggest losers are likely to be New York and California, with forecasted declines of 149,000 and 530,000 fewer public school students, respectively.

Aldeman notes that schools that should have closed have remained open, mainly because of the infusion of federal aid:

That translates into a lot of districts with a lot of underenrolled schools. The infusion of $190 billion in federal ESSER funds, not to mention state “hold harmless” provisions, has allowed districts to hold off difficult school closure conversations.

He says that this is the very mistake that risks “adjustment inertia”:

The surge in budgets over the last few years represents a lost opportunity for districts to right-size their physical footprints. It would have been wise to use the federal funds to soften the blows and create supports for displaced students while the money was there. By putting off those decisions, districts will likely have to close many more schools in the years to come, after the one-time money runs out.

If a school serves fewer students, the cost of providing the same services will rise on a per-capita basis. As a result, underenrolled schools start to look like costly outliers.

Aldman says that kids also suffer at under-enrolled schools:

Kids at those schools miss out on the full complement of staffing or programming that they’d otherwise receive. Districts can’t continue to offer music, art, electives, counselors, extracurriculars or other specialists at the same levels when they spread their resources too thin across too many buildings.

Aldman’s conclusion is clear:

Smaller schools are neither entirely good or all bad. But, because districts’ revenues are tied to how many students they serve, they have to make choices about how to allocate resources across schools. Budgeting is a trade-off. When enrollments decline, the district can spread its staff across a large number of buildings and let each school operate with a skeleton crew, or it can close some schools so more students can attend schools that offer a full suite of services.

Read Aldeman’s full article.