Across the US, more than 50m students made their way back to school this month, but some of the largest districts in the country will continue to struggle with declining enrollment.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) forecasts that enrollment will continue to decline to 536,202 in 2021-2022, from 621,188 students in the 2012-2013 school year, according to the district’s 2019-2020 budget.
Enrollment in the district peaked in the 2002-2003 school year and has fallen every year since. The district attributes the decline to lower birth rates and a higher cost of living in southern California.
“Los Angeles County has been losing kids for the past decade. It’s really hard on districts, in part because of the financial model that we have. All the states have to deal with this all over the county and it’s kind of a painful thing because you have to reduce the size of your staff” and close schools, said Paul Warren, a research associate at the Public Policy Institute of California and a former policy analyst at the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.
While the district expects to lose students, Los Angeles County’s population is growing. The county added more than 423,000 people between 2010 and 2018, according to estimates from California’s Department of Finance. The county’s population is expected to grow through 2050.
“We’re losing people to other states nearby and we’re gaining other people, and we lose different kinds of people than we gain,” said Warren.
Many states, like California, allocate education funding based on the number of students that attend, and with declining enrollments, many districts have had to downsize, including laying off staff and selling properties.
Student enrollment at Philadelphia City School District is forecast to fall to 110,709 in the 2028-2029 school year, from 130,566 in 2018-2019, data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education show.
Enrollment at the district has fallen by more than 24% in the past 10 years, despite a 3.8% increase in the general population, according to data from Pennsylvania Department of Education and the US Census Bureau.
“The population structure of the country, in at least the last eight years, has shown a decline of the child population,” said demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.
“Among the nation’s 381 metros, 214 showed losses in their child populations in 2018. I think many school districts need to be prepared for slower growth or declines in their enrollments,” Frey said.
Less children, thanks to a lower birth rate, may have some of its roots in the financial crisis, as millennials delayed having families because of tougher financial conditions, Frey said.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, cities experienced a gain in migrants from other areas in the country, which was “very unusual,” he said, but now, the trends have reversed, and more people are moving out to the suburbs or exurbs.
Also, birthrates among immigrant populations have declined much faster than earlier predictions, Warren said.
“That just took everyone by surprise. There is an expectation that we’re going to be declining for the foreseeable future,” Warren said.