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As enrollments decline, state leaders should help districts mitigate school closure pressures

Carrie Hahnel & Francis A. Pearman, EdSource

New school enrollment numbers in California point to an uncomfortable truth: California may have too many schools for its shrinking student population.

As declining enrollment puts pressure on school district budgets, many districts are considering school closures — an option that can save money but comes with other costs, including potential harm to student achievement and well-being, longer school commute times and neighborhood blight.

To avoid making a bad situation worse, state leaders have a pivotal role to play in ensuring districts make these tough decisions equitably and with an eye toward the long term.

The figures from the California Department of Education this week, which show that K-12 enrollment fell 0.7% since last year and 5% since 2019-20, come as little surprise. Enrollment in California had been shrinking even before the pandemic boosted departures.

This trend is expected to continue for at least the rest of the decade. Plummeting enrollment — combined with rising chronic absenteeism — is grim news for school districts that receive state funding based on how many students enroll and attend school each day. Adding to the fiscal challenge, the last of $33.5 billion in federal and state Covid-19 relief funds will soon be gone, and California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office is predicting an economic “cooldown.”

To address the resulting budget shortfalls, many districts have already consolidated or shuttered schools or are contemplating doing so. Over the past year, school officials have recommended closures or consolidations in, among other places, Oakland UnifiedLodi UnifiedAlameda UnifiedAuburn UnifiedSonoma Valley Unified. More are sure to follow.

While decisions about school closures ultimately lie with individual districts, state legislators, California Department of Education officials and county office of education leaders have an important role to play, too.

That’s because declining enrollment reflects statewide demographic changes rooted in falling birth rates and migration patterns, affecting entire regions, not just individual communities. And state leaders are responsible for guaranteeing equal educational opportunities for all California students — a key consideration with school closures because they disproportionately affect students of color, especially Black students.

State and regional leaders can lean into this role by providing guidance on how to effectively engage community members in consolidation and closure decisions. District leaders often avoid confronting these decisions for understandable reasons: these conversations can surface community tensions about the fair distribution of resources and opportunities, and they usually generate significant pushback, from demonstrations at school board meetings to student walkouts and hunger strikes.

But rushed or nonexistent community engagement excludes important voices from the process and makes the ultimate decisions even more painful for all involved. State leaders can communicate clearly about the challenges ahead, encourage districts to start these tough conversations now, and provide specific tools to help them implement transparent and inclusive processes.

State leaders can also help districts avoid disproportionate racial impacts in closure decisions. One example is AB 1912, authored by Assemblymember Mia Bonta and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2022.

This law requires that districts determined to be in fiscal distress perform an “equity impact analysis” before approving the closure or consolidation of a school. Legislators and state education leaders could build upon this law by encouraging all districts to focus on how closures might impact different student groups.

They could also encourage districts to offer displaced students high-quality academic opportunities and priority school placements and to use the school consolidation window as an opportunity to address broader local priorities, which may include racial integration or improved instructional programs.

Since school closures often exacerbate decades of segregationneighborhood disinvestment, and gentrification, state leaders should also incentivize school districts, housing authorities and other municipal agencies to work together to ensure thriving, affordable communities for families.

For example, they can prioritize funding for affordable housing programs and encourage the development of mixed-income housing projects that include affordable units. Regional leaders can encourage school districts to include housing elements in their facilities master plans, as cities like San Francisco are already doing. State and local leaders can pass inclusionary zoning and rent control policies to help low-income families access safe, stable and affordable housing in areas with quality schools.

Finally, state leaders can start a broader conversation about how to right-size K-12 education to match new enrollment realities. California’s vast and decentralized system — which includes nearly 1,000 school districts and more than 10,000 public schools — has inefficiencies that will only worsen as enrollment declines.

State leaders should study how evolving demographic trends affect district and school enrollment patterns. And they could commission a statewide review to make recommendations on district and school consolidations and closures, with an eye toward regional population trends and priorities around the racial and economic integration of schools and communities.

School closures and consolidations may be unavoidable in the years ahead, but the toll they might take on students, families and communities is not. With the right support, districts can make these decisions in ways that engage community members, center racial equity, and boost the quality of educational opportunities for all students. California leaders need to embrace their role in helping schools — and the state’s entire education system — adjust to a new enrollment reality.