Column:: Falling birth rates and charter schools are threats to public school funding

Members of the California Teachers Assn. and supporters of public education march to the Capitol as part of RedForEd Day of Action on May 22 in Sacramento to call on lawmakers to increase funding for public schools.
(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

A major issue affecting public schools has so far gone largely unnoticed by the masses, but that’s probably going to change soon.

Get ready to start hearing more about declining enrollment.

It’s actually been going on for awhile now throughout California and in many other states. While not every district has seen decreasing student populations, the trend is broad-based enough that education officials and analysts are beginning to sound off on the need to develop longterm plans.

Over the past five years, the total number of public K-12 students in the state has steadily fallen, from 6.2 million in 2014-15 to 6.19 million in the most recent school year. In 2 018-19 alone, 34,135 fewer students were enrolled than in the previous year.


Over the next 10 years, if current projections are borne out, California’s public schools could lose another 258,000 students.

In a state as big as California, those numbers might not seem like much. But I assure you, this is a big deal, one with far-reaching consequences that will pose significant challenges for school districts in the years ahead as they wrestle with their budgets and the allocation of resources.

Orange County has been very much in the thick of it. Public school enrollment in the county has declined for eight consecutive years, continuing a downward trend that has held for the better part of two decades after reaching a high in the early 2000s.

Many local districts have experienced a similar drop-off in student populations. Newport-Mesa Unified’s enrollment has steadily shrunk over the past several years and is now expected to total 20,431 in the coming school year — 1,500 less than in 2013-14.

The biggest factor behind the falling enrollment numbers is that Americans are having fewer babies.

“Birth rates are lower, so that’s what you’d call crop failure,” said Jeff Trader, Newport-Mesa’s chief financial officer.

While there are regional variations, this is largely a nationwide phenomenon. For seven straight years, the fertility rate in the U.S. has fallen. In 2018, the federal government reported, the number of people born in the country had reached the lowest level in 32 years.

Both cultural and economic factors have been cited for the decline. Teen pregnancy is down, which is obviously a welcome development, but there’s more to it than that. Increasingly adults are delaying having children, having fewer children, or not having children at all. In part this is because women are choosing to pursue careers over marriage and family.

But experts believe the major reason is financial anxiety –– over high levels of credit card and student loan debt, escalating housing costs, stagnant wages, the lack of paid family leave and the expense of childrearing. In coastal Orange County, a largely affluent area, many young families are priced out of the real estate market.

Long-term planning in an era of declining public school enrollment is a dicey business.

“It’s really a facility question,” said Trader. “Do we have the right mix, and are they in the right place? And school boundaries. If there are declines in a substantial way, there are policy discussions.”

Though Newport-Mesa’s enrollment had been trending downward since 2013-14, the bigger drop in the last school year “was a surprise to us,” he said. “Looking at that is a bit of a wake-up call for us.”

The district is now predicting a decrease of 1.07%, to 20,431 students, in the 2019-20 school year.

In an era of declining enrollment, Newport-Mesa, and its neighbor Laguna Beach Unified, have one advantage in that they are basic aid districts. This means they obtain funding directly from local property taxes, rather than the per-student allocation from the state that most districts rely upon.

But there’s one more wrinkle that could throw a wrench into district budgeting and planning: The proliferation of charter schools in some areas is having a substantial impact on traditional public schools.

New charter schools are set to open this year in Newport-Mesa and the Ocean View School District in Huntington Beach. The two charters, the International School for Science and Culture (ISSAC) and Sycamore Creek, were approved by the Orange County board of education in March, despite strenuous objections by school officials and many parents.

It remains to be seen how many students in those districts will be siphoned off into the new charters. The logistical and financial challenges for the district are further complicated because the charters are also allowed to draw students from outside district boundaries, and the districts will be obliged to pay 70% of the cost for those students, with the balance covered by the state.

The charter schools represent “a big commitment” for the district, Trader said. “We don’t know where any of these students are going to come from. We don’t know how to staff our schools appropriately. It’s all a big question.”

School districts’ financial and structural planning can often seem mysterious to outsiders. As administrators grapple with significant demographic and policy changes, we should at least be aware of the forces at play, which promise to have a profound impact on our public schools for many years to come.

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PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.