California school leaders, researchers discuss impacts of declining enrollment

California is estimating a 9 percent drop in K-12 enrollment, with some counties experiencing double that amount, by 2030. To complicate the picture, other counties are expecting to see enrollment increase as much as 10 percent. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the decreases, local educational agencies and the Legislature can lessen the impact of declining enrollment, according to panelists in a March 24 roundtable hosted by EdSource.

The panel — which consisted of LEA leaders, education researchers and advocates and Senator John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) — weighed the pros and cons of funding formulas relying on average daily attendance or enrollment, how funding formulas could lead to improved realities for students coming out of the public health crisis, and what some LEAs are doing to slow the decline and boost attendance.

Referencing a recent Policy Analysis for California Education report “Student Count Options for School Funding: Trade-offs and Policy Alternatives for California,” Carrie Hahnel, senior director of policy and strategy at the Opportunity Institute, pointed out that absenteeism is often highest in higher poverty districts and so the LEAs who need funding most get the greatest penalties under ADA. Additionally, while funding is based on attendance, schools’ budgets are based on enrollment.

ADA in the state is typically 95 percent of enrollment and doesn’t vary much by district, Hahnel said. High poverty districts hover around 1 percentage point below average and districts with more privilege are usually 1 percentage point above.

Adding to Hahnel’s comments, Julien Lafortune, research fellow at Public Policy Institute of California, said that while attendance rates don’t differ much across the state, “we do see a little more variance is in small districts and rural districts and so there the impact of students missing a few days can be larger — when you have fewer students overall, that’s a bigger chunk of the budget. This could provide additional stability as well.”

District perspectives

As superintendent at San Ysidro School District, Gina Potter said she handles attendance-related penalties for students and families.

In her district, between 25 and 30 percent of students fall under the McKinney-Vento Act on unhoused or homeless youth. It’s hard, she said, to consider penalties for students in a vulnerable population who may be living out of cars or couch surfing instead of just providing resources and supports.

Potter said that she’s a proponent of transitioning from ADA to enrollment-based funding while there’s additional money available. “I think we have a rare opportunity right now with the boom in state revenues to address this in a meaningful way,” Potter said.

Describing what her district experienced attendance-wise since the pandemic, she said COVID’s impact has been “tremendous” for all LEAs. During the omicron wave, San Ysidro SD issued independent study contracts to students so they could participate in school remotely just to realize that was a major hardship if they or their families were sick. The independent study contracts needed to be completed to recoup ADA, Potter explained. It didn’t seem fair to be penalized for something out of everyone’s control.

“If school districts in the state of California don’t receive some type of COVID attendance relief for this year’s COVID losses, my district with just seven schools will realize a fiscal loss of $1.7 million,” Potter said. “It’s urgent that the Legislature provide some kind of COVID attendance relief for the current year. It doesn’t have to be identical to what was provided last year, but anything to mitigate that fiscal loss because we’re doing our absolute best.”

Long Beach Unified School District’s All Here campaign predates the pandemic. Used to boost attendance and enrollment, the peer-learning network where organizations like Attendance Works have offered strategies for success, was presented by Erin M. Simon, assistant superintendent of school support services at Long Beach USD.

Building relationships within the community has helped keep ADA strong, Simon said. Training staff to be welcoming with students, creating restorative environments, communication with families, outreach and positive messaging have all played a role as well as having tiered levels of support when students miss school.

In San Juan USD, Holly Cybulski, director of elementary and K-8 schools, talked about the enrollment increase in the LEAs home school program, operating under state independent study legislation.. The program offers educator support for parents, district curriculum and other perks like being able to transfer to an in-person school, and Cybulski credits it for retaining and attracting students who may have otherwise attended a charter or private school.

A recording of the webinar is available to view here.