Essential California: What the state’s shrinking public schools mean for students

Students get off school buses.
Students arrive at Rudecinda Sepulveda Dodson Middle School.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. This is Deborah Netburn, the faith and spirituality reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and I’m writing from Yucca Valley, where spring has officially sprung!

I love being a journalist, but that doesn’t mean I love “the media.” In particular, I struggle with the industry’s tendency to take any news and focus exclusively on its negative impact. A perfect example is rain in L.A.: We always need rain in L.A. And yet, when the heavens finally open, do we celebrate? No. Immediately we’re on the lookout for mudslides and road closures.

I thought a lot about that professional impulse as I read a new report that enrollment in California public schools fell in 2021-22, the fifth year in a row. There are currently 110,000 fewer students in state public schools than during the last school year. The year before that, the decline was more acute, with the system losing 160,000 students — the largest drop in two decades.


In Los Angeles, where my kids attend public school, the decrease in enrollment was even more precipitous. Enrollment in L.A. Unified dropped by more than 27,000 students this fall, an annual decline of close to 6%.

The report did not identify why students in the state are leaving public schools, but the policy experts I spoke to said it was likely due to a suite of factors. Lack of affordable housing means families are leaving urban centers, where overall enrollment has dropped the most. Far fewer young students enrolled in public school in the past few years, suggesting that families are waiting to send their kids to school until the pandemic is behind us. And in some economically distressed areas, older students left school to enter the workforce to help support their families and may not have returned.

Most upsetting are the economically marginalized students who were experiencing homelessness or other challenges who have essentially disappeared — school districts have been unable to track them down and don’t know what happened to them. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a slight uptick of students entering private schools during the pandemic or being home-schooled, and it is possible that they have remained there.

A lot of this is pandemic-related, but even if COVID-19 had never existed, state public schools were expected to lose students, said John Rogers, professor of education and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA.

“We also face demographic decline in terms of enrollment,” he said. “Between now and 2030, about 10% of enrollment is expected to drop off. It’s a longer-term story as well.”

There are real reasons why a decline in the number of kids attending public school could have a negative impact on the state’s education system. School funding is allocated by a complex system that includes average daily attendance. In this system, fewer kids in schools translates to less money for schools. But, as Rogers points out, there’s no reason it has to be that way.

“We can make different policy decisions,” he said. “We can ensure that the needs of people and their communities are met.”


Louie Rodriguez, professor at the graduate school of education at UC Riverside, said declining enrollment has spurred many public schools to get creative about how they can entice and retain students, leading to better, more engaging schools for everyone.

“We see districts experimenting more with magnet-type schools, identifying content areas of specialization like language immersion, or STEM academies, or schools with a leadership focus,” he said. “I think what declining enrollment does is force districts to look in the mirror and see how they can innovate.”

Both my boys are switching schools next year. My 11-year-old is entering middle school, and my 14-year-old is headed to high school — so my family has looked at a lot of LAUSD public schools over the past year. Overall, I’m impressed with our options. My younger kid is looking forward to taking computer animation next year and doing dance instead of traditional PE. My 14-year-old will have a wide range of AP options wherever he goes (TBD), with access to college counselors, tutoring and robotics programs if he’s interested.

Rodriguez said he wasn’t surprised to hear it. Even if school enrollment is declining, “I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Lakers fire coach Frank Vogel: The Lakers fired coach Frank Vogel on Monday just two years after he led the team to its 17th NBA championship and first since 2010. Los Angeles Times

Voters are split on Garcetti. Here’s what that tells us about the race to succeed him: Voters in Los Angeles are evenly divided on Mayor Eric Garcetti’s performance, according to a new poll — a finding that may yield insights into the race to succeed him. Los Angeles Times

USC sues YouTubers over disruptive prank videos: In the most recent incident, two men interrupted a lecture on the Holocaust while pretending to be “a member of the Russian Mafia” and Hugo Boss, a known manufacturer of Nazi uniforms during World War II, according to court documents. Los Angeles Times


Rick Caruso and Karen Bass in a dead heat: If L.A.’s mayoral primary were held today, Caruso, with backing from 24% of likely voters, and Bass, with 23%, would move to the November runoff, according to a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times

California considers basic income for homeless college students: Senate Bill 1341, which cleared its first legislative hurdle last week, would entitle high school seniors who fit the definition of homelessness to at least four monthly cash payments between April 2023 and August 2023. LAist

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Homicides are up, but California sees a welcome decline in child victims: Homicides climbed last year, but the number of child homicide victims fell dramatically in California over the last decade, the latest death certificate data show, a pattern mirrored to a lesser extent nationwide. Los Angeles Times

Deadly Sacramento gang shootout renews calls for youth funding, violence prevention: Community organizations and advocates say the deadly gang shooting that erupted earlier this month in downtown Sacramento is evidence that the city has not invested enough in youth services and violence prevention. Sacramento Bee


PG&E will pay more than $55 million to avoid criminal prosecution for starting two wildfires: As part of the agreements, no criminal charges will be filed in connection with last year’s Dixie fire, and a criminal complaint regarding the 2019 Kincade fire will be dismissed. Los Angeles Times


San Francisco’s youngest drug overdose victim last year was 14. Her mother still doesn’t know what happened: On March 9, 2021, Paris Serrano became the youngest person in San Francisco to die last year of a fentanyl overdose. San Francisco Chronicle

Fresno used to be the “raisin capital of the world.” Not anymore: In 2000, an estimated 280,000 acres of raisin grapes were harvested in California, a peak. By 2020, the bearing acreage had declined to 145,000. Fresno Bee


Tasting the apocalypse, for $185: The latest tasting menu at the San Francisco restaurant Nightbird is based on a not-so-cheerful, but apparently delicious, End of Times theme. On a five-course menu (plus eight little bites, all for $185) chef Kim Alter is serving dishes that visually evoke dark times with farmers market ingredients. San Francisco Chronicle

L.A.’s Magic Castle gets a new owner: Video game mogul Randy Pitchford has purchased the historic site for an undisclosed sum. Best known as the founder of Gearbox Entertainment Co., he is also a lifelong magician and member of the academy based at the Magic Castle, where he learned the tricks of the trade. “Basically everything I know about entertainment started at the Magic Castle,” said Pitchford, whose specialty is sleight-of-hand. “I feel like I owe my career to the Magic Castle.” Los Angeles Times

Yes, anybody can be buried at sea. Why people pick the ocean as their final resting place: A casket tipped into the ocean? A shrouded body weighted with stones and sunk to the bottom of the sea? It’s possible, it’s legal, and there are myriad reasons why people want to do it. (This is a shameless plug for my own story, but I think you’ll enjoy it!) Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: Sunny, 69. San Diego: sunny, 64 . San Francisco: windy, 55. San Jose: sunny, 60. Fresno: sunny, 63. Sacramento: sunny, 62.

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Today’s California memory comes from Richard Derby:

About 1961, when I was 10, our family was driving back down from Mount Baldy in the dark after sunset. I looked west and said casually, “I see a comet.” Dad replied, “Comets are very rare — you just don’t ‘see’ them.” I said “Well, it has a tail.” Dad looked and exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness! That’s a comet!” We pulled off the road near the San Antonio Dam, got out of the car and gazed at the wonderful, rare comet. The next day we read about it in the newspaper.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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