The Mystery of the Missing Public School Students

Cityside Column: A statewide tumble in enrollment prompts a search for answer and options

Every so often a TV series or movie takes on the theme of a vast number of people who go missing. Think HBO’s The Leftovers, where 2 percent of the world’s population suddenly disappears.

It turns out, there’s a real-world scenario in which the whereabouts of a huge number of individuals cannot be fully explained. And while it might not make good binge-watching, a lot of people are trying to figure out just what happened to 110,000 public school students in California.

Last week, the California Department of Education released its annual statewide public school enrollment data, and the primary finding is a doozy: Enrollment in the current academic year is 5.89 million students, down from just over 6 million the year before.

It’s a shocking figure with a vast ripple effect impacting everything from student learning to district budgets to the viability of certain campuses. But perhaps the only thing more troubling than the decline is that it is consistent, and like a leaky bathtub, state public school enrollment has fallen for five straight years. Los Angeles magazine previously predicted the current plummet in enrollment.

The current year’s drop is the most dramatic, a 1.8 percent tumble, but it is nothing new. In the 2014-15 academic year, enrollment stood at 6.235 million.

Some might expect that charter schools are siphoning kids, but two things quash that argument: 1) charter school enrollment in the current academic year fell by about 12,000, to 678,056; and 2) charter schools are actually public schools, and are counted in the Department of Education’s tally.

No, this is an across-the-board-decrease, with few exceptions. The Department of Education said that the most significant declines were detected in grades, one, four, seven and nine, and also that “California enrollment declines are consistent with national data trends that show enrollment is dropping across the country.”

Same places suffer more than others, and the report mentions that large urban school districts account for nearly one-third of the state’s drop. That includes the Los Angeles Unified School District, where, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported, enrollment slumped by more than 27,000 students in the current academic year, a decrease of about 6 percent.

A tricky thing is that for all the hand-wringing, there is no single concrete explanation for the incredibly shrinking school population, and no one can definitively say where all or even most of the students have gone. A number of smart people cite a plethora of reasonable factors, and it is probably a situation where each contributes to what has transpired.

The most frequently cited reason for the drop in enrollment is the lingering repercussions of the pandemic, and if you have kids of school age, then you had a window into a certain level of education hell. Even if classrooms have been open all year and students can now drop the masks, there is still a feeling of post-traumatic shock. During distance learning our family was fortunate to have good devices, stable Internet connectivity and parents with flexible schedules who could lend support, but every day on a computer it was clear how much our kids were losing without social connections and the in-person support of teachers. I know the situation was much more difficult for families with fewer means.

So one can understand why parents who felt their kids barely scraped by, and thus need extra support today, are going wherever they think it exists. Pedro Noguera, Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, hit the point when he appeared last week on KPCC’s “AirTalk.”

“They’re looking for alternatives, not just private schools and charter schools, but even online schools, because they find those options better for their children,” Noguera told host Larry Mantle.

Another element that likely contributes is a declining birth rate, though that obviously does not account for the shrinking number of seventh- and ninth-graders this year. Probably more significant is the housing crunch, with rising costs and limited inventory driving families away from expensive Los Angeles.

Even that presents some unexpected repercussions, as Harold Sullins, associate superintendent of the San Bernardino Unified School District, described in the “AirTalk” episode.

“We do see families moving from those higher cost-of-living areas into our community,” Sullins said. “However, what we’re actually experiencing now, as we see housing prices increase, we’re actually seeing a migration of families that have come to San Bernardino for affordable housing moving further east.”

Keep going east from San Bernardino and eventually you’ll pass state lines.

All of this is defined in numbers, but the implications ripple outward in many ways. California schools receive money from the state based on student attendance, and with so many kids missing so many days, a push is on to alter the funding mechanism. Then there is the fact that if enrollment declines enough, certain districts will have to close schools, which can mean disruption and longer commutes for some students, as well as a loss of teaching and other jobs.

The moment is also forcing a reckoning for school administrators, with some coming to understand that the educational environment is perhaps more competitive than in the past. The result is that certain public schools and districts may need to be creative in terms of what they offer families. This could mean everything from more or different extracurricular activities to dual-immersion programs to reducing LAUSD class sizes that, in high school, can mean 40 or more students trying to learn under one overworked teacher.

There may be fewer students in public schools, but the lessons, on all levels, have never been so complicated.