Honey, we shrunk the schools!

In the fall of 2019, American public-school enrollment stood at 50,796,445 students, as it turned out, a peak likely not to be revisited in our lifetimes.

Between a baby-bust that commenced in 2007 (with a COVID-19 accelerant), a declared forever-culture war over curriculum, pension costs strangling the hiring of new teachers, and a myriad of other challenges, some self-inflicted, the writing is on the wall.

The National Center for Education Statistics projected public school enrollment declines by state for the 2021-30 period:

Table 1: Public School Enrollment Projections by State, 2022 to 2030 (Source: National Center for Education Statistics)
Fall 2022 Fall 2023 Fall 2024 Fall 2025 Fall 2030 Trend
  Alabama 753,900 756,100 757,500 755,600 740,400 -1.8%
  Alaska 133,100 133,400 133,400 133,100 128,500 -3.5%
  Arizona 1,144,400 1,149,100 1,152,300 1,152,400 1,155,000 0.9%
  Arkansas 497,600 498,700 499,600 497,500 487,700 -2.0%
  California 6,005,300 5,934,900 5,854,800 5,786,200 5,425,900 -9.6%
  Colorado 883,200 875,800 867,100 857,300 817,300 -7.5%
  Connecticut 512,300 509,100 505,400 500,500 475,600 -7.2%
  Delaware 141,500 141,900 142,300 142,100 137,600 -2.8%
  DC 98,000 98,900 99,500 99,300 94,700 -3.4%
  Florida 2,814,600 2,806,000 2,791,000 2,775,800 2,704,600 -3.9%
  Georgia 1,738,100 1,723,000 1,707,200 1,686,600 1,606,600 -7.6%
  Hawaii 177,200 175,000 173,200 170,900 158,900 -10.3%
  Idaho 314,300 315,000 315,400 314,700 312,000 -0.7%
  Illinois 1,924,000 1,919,600 1,914,100 1,897,500 1,800,900 -6.4%
  Indiana 1,051,400 1,052,100 1,050,300 1,045,600 1,017,800 -3.2%
  Iowa 521,500 521,700 520,700 518,300 505,900 -3.0%
  Kansas 484,500 480,700 476,200 470,300 440,300 -9.1%
  Kentucky 665,700 661,800 657,500 650,900 626,500 -5.9%
  Louisiana 705,000 702,100 699,600 694,600 671,700 -4.7%
  Maine 173,000 171,600 170,300 168,700 161,800 -6.5%
  Maryland 903,100 902,100 900,800 895,800 859,700 -4.8%
  Massachusetts 927,200 923,200 920,100 913,700 879,900 -5.1%
  Michigan 1,427,600 1,418,900 1,409,200 1,395,800 1,329,900 -6.8%
  Minnesota 902,200 908,300 912,800 913,100 903,100 0.1%
  Mississippi 429,800 420,800 412,000 401,500 364,700 -15.1%
  Missouri 882,700 873,100 862,100 848,500 792,200 -10.3%
  Montana 147,400 146,600 145,200 143,700 136,800 -7.2%
  Nebraska 334,400 334,900 335,100 336,100 329,200 -1.6%
  Nevada 494,300 494,000 492,400 489,400 476,300 -3.6%
  New Hampshire 165,900 163,200 160,500 157,600 144,600 -12.8%
  New Jersey 1,393,000 1,388,200 1,382,300 1,372,000 1,307,600 -6.1%
  New Mexico 311,400 305,200 299,100 292,100 263,700 -15.3%
  New York 2,613,000 2,592,700 2,573,000 2,547,000 2,399,100 -8.2%
  N. Carolina 1,545,000 1,545,600 1,545,400 1,541,500 1,524,800 -1.3%
  N. Dakota 120,400 121,700 122,600 123,000 123,500 2.6%
  Ohio 1,670,300 1,669,400 1,666,100 1,657,500 1,599,400 -4.2%
  Oklahoma 717,300 719,600 719,200 715,900 692,900 -3.4%
  Oregon 584,300 581,900 577,800 571,700 538,900 -7.8%
  Pennsylvania 1,712,900 1,710,100 1,705,200 1,694,800 1,626,600 -5.0%
  Rhode Island 139,500 138,400 137,500 136,000 130,200 -6.7%
  S. Carolina 790,300 792,100 792,400 789,300 772,200 -2.3%
  S. Dakota 145,500 146,700 147,200 147,200 145,800 0.2%
  Tennessee 1,014,100 1,018,800 1,022,000 1,023,300 1,029,900 1.6%
  Texas 5,495,100 5,481,200 5,469,300 5,442,300 5,311,300 -3.3%
  Utah 710,700 718,700 724,600 727,900 742,900 4.5%
  Vermont 83,600 82,500 81,500 80,300 74,600 -10.8%
  Virginia 1,254,300 1,243,900 1,235,200 1,224,000 1,177,500 -6.1%
  Washington 1,096,900 1,092,700 1,086,600 1,077,200 1,033,500 -5.8%
  West Virginia 249,100 243,400 237,600 231,000 202,400 -18.7%
  Wisconsin 840,500 835,400 829,100 820,200 780,200 -7.2%

Note that Table 1 is public school enrollment, not district enrollment. District enrollment may fare even worse. American public-school enrollment grew for 30 years after 1990; adjusting to the new reality won’t be easy.

 

The history of shrinking state enrollments in the past would indicate that the most likely outcome will be to simply spend more per pupil. It worked in the past:

Note, however, that the 2000-15 period included a great number of baby boomers in their prime earning years. Between now and 2030, an average of 10,000 baby boomers per day will reach the age of 65. In other words, the feather-pillow soft landing in the chart above won’t be available in the future.

What then to do?

Many districts will either close a number of schools between now and 2030 or they will financially hamstring themselves keeping low-enrollment schools open. School boards have not exactly covered themselves in glory dealing with under-utilized school space to date, and the issue will become increasingly urgent. Some innovative approaches may be needed.

Herding students by ZIP code to often poorly managed schools with extremely limited incentives for performance will linger as a distastefully antiquated practice. Peonage and killing whales for oil after we could get it out of the ground persisted for decades despite being repulsive.

The opponents of self-determination in education should realize that regardless of what they do, the status-quo is not remotely an option. Even if it were, it would not be a desirable one.