Some administrators may have a false sense of security that pandemic-era enrollment declines are only temporary. There is a misconception that if districts can restore confidence in public education, most students will return, says Elleka Yost, director of advocacy at ASBO International, the professional association for school business officials.
But several trends are indicating the declines may be something more like a new normal that will force spending cuts and the elimination of programs. A substantial number of parents switched to homeschooling, private schools, and other alternatives over the last few years while younger couples are having fewer kids.
“Enrollment is the dark horse issue that not a lot of districts are really thinking about,” Yost warned. “They’re understanding enrollment as a short-term issue rather than a longer-term problem where they are going to have to right-size their budgets.”
Enrollment levels, of course, determine the amount of state funding many districts get but that is not the only dark cloud on the financial horizon.
Beyond enrollment declines
Experts say K-12 is facing as fiscal cliff that threatens three other major economic shocks in the coming years:
- ESSER funding is scheduled to end in September 2024.
- Inflation combined with a tight labor market and new school hiring over the last few years.
- A nationwide recession or economic slowdown will sap state revenues and cause a drop in education funding.
“You are going to get a double whammy of funds going away that you had and a loss of other funds that should have been coming if the economy was going along normally,” says David Lewis, executive director of ASBO International.
Some states have cut education funding because of the ESSER surplus. Lewis fears, however, that states will not restore that funding when ESSER expires. Education leaders must therefore advocate aggressively for K-12 funding at the state and local levels. “There’s a lot of criticism out there about what is being taught but overall support for public education is still very high,” Lewis says. “Communication needs to be ongoing with lawmakers, so they know education is a priority for voters.”
The good news is that many education leaders are investing ESSER funds in academic recovery strategies that, in the past, have proven highly effective. That includes high dosage tutoring and focusing on accelerated learning rather than remediation, Yost said.
Administrators will have to make the case that these programs deserve continued funding when ESSER expires. “It is a bit of a challenge determining return-on-investment right now, despite public pressure for wanting those answers now,” Yost said. “It has only been a short amount of time.”
Yost and Lewis of ASBO also urge administrators to make sure the community understands that COVID funds were a one-time relief package. Leaders should be transparent with stakeholders so they know reduced revenues mean districts and schools may have to make some tough decisions. “That way the community can be a part of the process if programs are cut or schools are consolidated,” she said. “Getting ahead of this and asking for community input on these issues will result in better decisions.”
Lessons from the Great Recession
School leaders should keep in mind that districts often lag behind the rest of the economy in feeling the effects of recessions and other economic disruptions, says Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association.
Schools also experience a slower recovery. In fact, school funding never fully recovered from the Great Recession. Leaders need to convince state and federal policymakers that continued investment in education helps the wider community endure recessions.
“Superintendents understand that funding one program or person comes at the expense of something else,” Ng said. “It’s just a deeper conversation now because of the potential depth of the fiscal cliff.”
For example, districts may have to discontinue the community Wi-Fi services they created during the depths of the pandemic. “That is not a school’s job, but they are doing it,” she said. “When that money goes away, there are going to be a lot of devices that don’t light up and a lot of homes that are not connecting.”
Many superintendents and other educators are now pushing for more concrete guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on how and when ESSER may be extended. This is particularly important in giving districts confidence that they can sign longer-term contracts for HVAC improvements and other facilities upgrades. Supply-chain snags and other issues mean that while districts can solidify their plans now, they may not be able to spend the money for a few years, Ng explained.