Barnard: In Many Schools, Enrollment Was Dropping Before COVID. Holding Districts Harmless Ignores Student Need and Could Make Inequities Worse

The 2020-21 school year is beginning with unprecedented uncertainty. A new survey from Civis Analytics revealed that nearly 40 percent of families have disenrolled from their current K-12 school in response to their reopening plans. District leaders are keenly aware that losing children means losing funding, and as they could not have possibly planned for an enrollment shock of this magnitude, administrators have valid reasons to ask policymakers for additional supports so they can stabilize their budgets, deliver virtual instruction and protect the health of staff and students.

However, it is key that policymakers disentangle the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on enrollment decline from larger trends that state education systems were seeing prior to the pandemic.

Consider North Carolina, which recently introduced a hold-harmless provision for the coming school year that would at least fund districts at the levels they received last year, regardless of changes in their student populations. The provision was welcome news to many district and school administrators expecting to lose students due to the pandemic. However, prior to pandemic-related school shutdowns, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction had already projected enrollment declines for 74 of 115 districts for the next school year. Additionally, 19 of these school districts were projected to have enrollment losses of 2 percent or more in a single year. While the pandemic has undoubtedly increased these rates for some North Carolina districts, a larger trend is at play here.

This is happening nationwide. A 2018 report from the National Center for Education Statistics projected that 19 states will have enrollment declines by 2026, 10 of which should expect declines of 5 percent or more. Most of these states are in the Northeast and Midwest. Although some of these regional losses could be explained by growth in homeschooling or school choice, the more powerful factors are family migration patterns, fertility rates and regional economic opportunity. Even in states where overall public K-12 populations are growing, not all districts are seeing new students.

Enrollment patterns play a big role in determining both school district operations and statewide education policy. Districts often struggle to trim their budgets as they lose students, and states with larger enrollment challenges are facing stronger political demands for policies like hold-harmless provisions and subsidies for small or shrinking districts.

But as Marguerite Roza and Hannah Jarmolowski recently highlighted in Education Next, these solutions aren’t “harmless,” despite what the name suggests. The more school funding is divorced from individual student need and tailored instead to accommodate special district circumstances or maintain historic spending levels, the more funding inequities emerge. School finance systems need to fairly accommodate new enrollment trends, not ignore them.

The recession and current uncertainty around where kids will end up after the pandemic — compounded by shrinking student populations and increased school choice in many states — warrant prudent responses from policymakers that put kids first. Any policies introduced to help districts weather the current storm need to be temporary and address only immediate problems attributable to the pandemic, regardless of what the “new normal” in education turns out to be. Hold-harmless provisions are difficult to roll back once they’re implemented. Legislators should also carefully consider whether these temporary measures exacerbate funding inequities or shortchange disadvantaged communities that are already most hurt by education budget cuts.

The pandemic has certainly had far-reaching effects for which school districts need immediate support. But if shortsighted policymaking isn’t kept under control, there’s a risk that the COVID-19 crisis will become a scapegoat for years to come and will prolong inequitable school funding policies.

Christian Barnard is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @CBarnard33.

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