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Public school enrollment declining in WA, across the nation as spending increases

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(The Center Square) – A new report finds public school enrollment is declining in America’s most populous cities, even as staffing levels and spending have increased.

Last week, the Manhattan Institute published a report that showed between 2013 and 2022, nationwide enrollment decreased by 2%, from 49.9 million to 48.8 million.

Enrollment in state Washington public schools is down 4% since 2019, with many of those students now enrolled in private schools, charter schools or home school programs.

The pandemic and long-term closures of school buildings led to the initial exodus for many families. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, statewide enrollment dropped 3% in 2020 compared to enrollment before the pandemic. Charter school enrollment jumped 35% in fall 2020.

The Seattle School District – the largest school district in the state – was not included in the report. SPS has lost nearly 4,000 students in the last five years and is now in the process of consolidating and potentially closing 20 schools. A final vote on the plan set for June 26.

New York, Illinois and California saw the largest student enrollment declines. Texas and Arizona saw the largest increases, according to the Manhattan Institute report.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, per-pupil costs have increased 13% from 2010, to an average of $16,280 in 2020.

Including state, local, and federal resources, Washington school districts receive an average of $18,354 per student.

According to a 2024 Washington state House Republicans fact sheet on K-12 education, Washington school districts employ 74,000 certificated instructors (including teachers), nearly 44,000 classified employees, and over 5,000 administrators.

NCES projects continued enrollment declines for Washington’s public schools, down another 3% by 2031. Only 10 states are projected to gain students, with Idaho projected to have the largest increase in total enrollment over the period , at 11%.

California and New Mexico are projected to have the largest percent decreases in total enrollment.

In Washington, recent state mandates requiring districts to adopt controversial curriculum has also contributed to the public school exodus, according to Liv Finne, Center for Education Director and the Washington Policy Center think tank.

“In the spring of 2021, lawmakers in Washington state implemented in the public schools the Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideology and its subset, radical gender theory. Most families do not want their young children exposed to this extremist racial agenda,” she said in a blog last summer.

Citing data from the Washington State Board of Education, Finne went on to write, “Private school enrollment in Washington state has jumped by 25 percent in three years. The number of homeschooled students has also grown, from 20,844 in 2019-20 to 29,798 in 2022-23, an increase of 42 percent.”

This session, lawmakers passed Initiative 2081, giving parents and guardians the right to review instructional materials, inspect records, receive certain notifications and opt out of sensitive instruction like sexual health education.

The law, which took effect earlier this month, is being challenged by the ACLU, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal is urging school districts to ignore the new law, suggesting there is a conflict with federal education laws, as reported by The Center Square.

The Manhattan Institute report suggests sensible budgeting should dictate that school resources are tied to student enrollment and says policies that protect districts from the budgetary consequences of fewer students are hurting public education.

The report is also critical of teachers’ unions that have long called for higher teacher salaries, even as they instruct fewer students.

According to the National Education Association, Washington teachers are among the best paid in the nation – No. 4 – with an average salary of $86,804 for the 2022-23 school year.