May 19, 2024 - Economy

America's school surplus is hurting some students

A bar chart showing the change in U.S. public school enrollment and number of schools between the 2019-2020 and 2022-2023 school years. Enrollment is down in urban, suburban, and town areas, and up in rural ones. The number of schools has decreased in urban and town areas, and is up slightly in suburban and rural ones.
Reproduced from WSJ via the Brookings Institution; Note: Excludes virtual schools, alternative schools and adult centers; Chart: Axios Visuals

Large U.S. cities are grappling with too many underpopulated schools, forcing school districts to make difficult decisions on closures.

Why it matters: Most states allocate school funding based on student populations. Losing students can result in cuts for classes, extracurriculars or sports as a result of lower demand.

  • More school districts could close schools in response to the imbalance, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Enrollment has decreased in recent years across public school districts in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago and New York City, per the WSJ.

By the numbers: Enrollment at public schools in urban areas dropped more than 5% from the 2019 to 2022 academic years, per the Brookings Institution. This amounts to more than 84,000 students.

  • In that same period, the number of urban schools decreased by 0.3%, or 68 schools.
  • Declining enrollment, low performance, budget deficits and old buildings can lead to school closures, per the National Center for Research on Education Access and Choice.
  • Schools with more students of color and higher poverty levels have been more likely to close.

State of play: Cities' populations have declined as they've seen birth rates decrease and residents leave over high cost of living. Parents have also sought non-public school options for their kids, experts told Axios.

  • Since the pandemic, parents have also sought private, charter and home schooling after becoming more involved in their kids' academic lives, said Patrick Gibson, deputy executive editor for Connecticut-based policy organization School + State Finance Project.

A Brookings Institution analysis released Thursday found parents have been turned off from traditional public schooling since COVID for reasons including a desire for more learning flexibility.

  • "We are seeing some weakening of the handshake between families and schools, which is so important for student success," said Sofoklis Goulas, a researcher at Brookings.

Friction point: Underpopulated schools often can't provide students with a breadth of academic or extracurricular options.

  • Providing diverse choices to a "small sliver interested in a bunch of different educational options," becomes difficult, Gibson said.
  • "If we think about a larger school that's closer to capacity, then all of a sudden we have 20 kids in an AP biology class or 20 kids in technical education," he said. "And then that starts to fill out that educational program."

What's next: School closures can upset communities. Students and parents should be involved in any grand re-imagining, experts told Axios.

  • "This is an opportunity for administrators and policymakers to find out 'What do families want? What do students need after COVID?'" Goulas said. "Some readjustment may be in order."

Go deeper: School segregation surges 70 years after Brown v. Board ruling

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