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Empire Center: Sliding enrollment should be focus of education discussions

Empire Center: Sliding enrollment should be focus of education discussions

As enrollment in public schools reaches levels not seen since early '90s, think tank urges conversations about finances, policy
Empire Center: Sliding enrollment should be focus of education discussions
Students in the Schenectady High School library during an after-school program.

State officials, lawmakers and school district leaders should pay more attention to the state’s steadily declining school enrollment, warned the Albany-based think tank Empire Center, in a back-to-school brief Tuesday.

Census figures indicate enrollment will continue to drop across the state this year – aside from a few small pockets of wealthy suburbs and small, upstate cities – to its lowest level since the early 1990s.

At the start of last school year, the state’s enrollment sat at just over 2.6 million students, about 15,000 fewer than the year before and only slightly more than the 2.58 million students the state counted at the start of the 1991-92 school year, when pre-kindergarten students weren’t tallied in overall enrollment numbers, according to the Empire Center's analysis of state data. Enrollment rebounded slightly in the 1990s -- thanks to a national "echo" from the babies of baby boomers -- but it has fallen since around 2000. 

Capital Region enrollment has followed the trajectory outlined in the Empire Center analysis. From a seven-county enrollment of nearly 170,000 students in 1976, student population slid to around 131,000 in 1988. It climbed slightly through the 1990s, topping out at at just over 145,000 in 1999 before falling back over the past 16 years, hitting about 132,000 students last year, according to state data the Daily Gazette has analyzed.

E.J. McMahon, the Empire Center’s research director, said the declining enrollment mirrors the state’s broader population flight and reflects problems of affordability in downstate counties and a lack of economic opportunities in upstate counties. He said the sliding enrollment also represents a challenge to the economic vitality of communities that see fewer and fewer young families and kids each year.

“Fewer young families means less of a future,” McMahon said of the economic challenges declining enrollment can foretell.

While the enrollment trend has played out steadily in state data, McMahon said officials at both the state and local levels should actively project their future student enrollments and use those projections in broader discussions about policy and finances. He said the state Education Department should conduct regular enrollment projections at the state level and work with school districts to do the same.

“The first way to seriously deal with this is to face it,” McMahon said. “For starters, you’ve got to confront it and think about it.”

He said enrollment projections could be coupled with multiyear financial projections that ground districts’ conversations about policy and changing budget needs in long-term thinking. He said enrollment projections at the state level would also force lawmakers to more closely scrutinize the ever-increasing costs of education, which rise each year under myriad contractual obligations.

“We shouldn’t be having a debate or discussion about funding without considering enrollment,” he said. “We shouldn’t be talking about any of these subjects without reasonable projections – both enrollment and financial – and we don’t do either.”

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