Fewer students could mean less money
BOSTON – Public schools in Massachusetts face an uncertain future as student enrollment continues to decline, a trend that could increase costs, cause school closures and fuel conflicts over charter schools, according to a report released last week.
The report by the Pioneer Institute was an update to a 2008 study published by a conservative-leaning public-policy group.
According to the Pioneer study, between 2003 and 2008, large urban districts, such as Cambridge, Fall River and Somerville, saw enrollments fall by slightly more than 16 percent. Lawrence enrollment dropped by 2.4 percent, while Quincy, meanwhile, saw a gain of 0.4 percent.
Lowell schools experienced a 13.4 percent decrease in enrollment. Although the Mill City saw one of the highest declines among large urban districts during that period, since 2008 Lowell’s enrollment has by risen by 0.1 percent.
The report said the overall decline is caused by the state’s slow population growth and aging residents.
According to the report, if enrollment continues to dwindle, as it likely will, state aid, which is partially set by enrollment, could decrease, forcing districts to turn more to local financing.
The study’s author, Kenneth Ardon, an economics professor at Salem State University, said in an email that declining enrollment will drive up costs for schools, further burdening schools already in tight economic situations.
“It costs a certain amount to run and maintain a building, and that amount does not fall if enrollment falls 10 percent,” he said. “Similarly, if a school loses a few students, that may not mean they can hire fewer teachers.”
Ardon said that if districts lose enough students, they may have to consider shutting down schools or consolidating districts.
But John Portz, an education-policy professor at Northeastern University, said he thinks the enrollment decline would have to be “pretty serious” before school districts start consolidating.
“That’s a major undertaking, and for many communities, the schools have a big identity with their community,” he said.
Portz said he thinks school closings, especially at the elementary level, would be more likely.
“If a district’s hit real hard, they will look at that, and they have to decide, do we need all these buildings?” he said. “You’ll probably be more likely to see that before you see consolidation.”
Portz thinks the decline might inspire more schools to consider other options, including the state’s Inter-district Choice Program, which allows for students to attend schools in neighboring districts.
“When a district sees its enrollment going down, and it sees in some of its schools it has extra capacity, then one way to try to address that is to say, maybe we can attract students from a neighboring district,” he said.
But he said many schools don’t participate in the program because they receive less state funding.
“It doesn’t cover the average per-pupil cost, but it is something,” he said.
The report offered other strategies, noting that since charter schools have maintained their growth, districts could establish charterlike reforms or increase the number of charter schools instead of relying on standard public schools to maintain student levels.
Ardon said a single city or town might be able to attract students from nearby districts or from private schools if they open charter schools, which could stop the enrollment drop in that town but wouldn’t remedy the statewide problem.
He said that because traditional schools lose money to charter schools with each students who transfers, the trend toward charter schools is likely to encounter political opposition, especially given that student enrollment in standard public schools is already dropping.
“This opposition is likely to be more vocal when enrollment in the local districts is already declining because the financial impact will be worse,” he said.
But the movement toward charter schools may not be a bad one, according to Benjamin Riley, policy director for NewSchools Venture Fund, an education nonprofit agency that “seeks to transform public education” by investing in schools.
Riley said successful charter schools provide insight into what works for all schools, such as the benefits of extending the school day and creating a “college-going” culture.
“The hope is that these lessons will be spread throughout all public — and private, for that matter — schools,” he said.
Riley said the achievements of charter schools contribute to a high-pressure environment in which local schools are driven to succeed.
Portz said he thinks charter schools have a place, despite the burden they can place on standard public schools.
“They can push the envelope a little bit on school reform, but I think the funding dynamic is a problem, and that’s the main thing that the traditional schools will argue against,” he said.
Portz said he thinks local school officials might be more willing to participate in the Innovation School Initiative approved by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2010 that established 26 charterlike schools that operate in the district.
Portz said that when school districts see declining enrollments because of charter schools, “It does push them to say, we’ve got to speak to this market, think about what the market’s saying, and what families and kids are saying in terms of making choices to exit.”
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