Pandemic-depressed student enrollment is bad news for Washington’s public school district finances. Fewer students are enrolled in schools, which usually would mean less state money for districts.
But even more concerning is that Seattle and some other districts’ enrollment continue trending downward even as statewide enrollment slowly recovers. They’ll need to tighten their belts while figuring out how they can regain the public’s trust.
Seattle School officials expect this fall’s student enrollment to be the lowest in a decade. They’re projecting 800 fewer students than last year. That’s 4,050 fewer students than were enrolled during the 2019-20 school year — a nearly 7.7% drop.
The question is why the district, and some others in the Puget Sound region, continue to lose students as other schools are slowly recovering from the pandemic. There were 1,060,998 students enrolled in Washington public schools in the fall of 2020, down almost 40,000 from the previous school year, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. By 2021, that number had inched back up to 1,061,762.
“Seattle is its own weather system,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal. He noted that families in the Seattle area often have more work flexibility and resources — giving many access to more options like home school and private school.
But other school districts in the tech-centered Puget Sound region have had mixed experiences. Lake Washington School’s fall 2021 enrollment was down 3.6% from 2019, in keeping with the statewide average. But in Bellevue, where strained teacher-parent-administrator relationships have plagued the district, enrollment was down a whopping 9.7% over the same two years.
Since most state education funding is allocated per student, significant enrollment declines usually carry a corresponding lack of funding. That can — and should — force districts with fewer students to make tough decisions, like staff and program cuts.
In the last two sessions, state lawmakers have softened the blow of this adjustment by funding schools based on pre-pandemic enrollment. But that “hold-harmless” funding will only be for the coming school year. Reykdal said his office will not recommend that state lawmakers extend the reprieve.
“We do not have an intent to go after more one-time money,” he said. “Our districts need to manage through this.”
That’s the right approach, especially since enrollment declines aren’t being felt evenly across the state’s 295 school districts. Although lawmakers are sure to face pleas and pressure from district administrators and teachers’ unions, they can’t bail districts out forever. They’ll need to return their focus to universal needs like improving equitable funding across districts and fully funding special education.
Hard-hit districts like Seattle and Bellevue must figure out why parents are reluctant to re-enroll their children and regain their confidence and trust.