Schools across Wisconsin have seen a slowdown or decline in enrollment, particularly in pre-K classes, compared to previous years. That pattern holds across public school districts, independent charter schools, and private school parental choice programs, according to new data released from the Department of Public Instruction.
Enrollment dropped 3% from September 2019 to September 2020, compared to a 0.4% drop in the previous 12-month period.
School enrollment in Wisconsin, and around the country, has been on the decline since the late 1990s, when the children of baby boomers — who themselves drove record enrollment numbers — were in their peak schooling years. However, amid uncertainty and near-constant changes in plans because of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the country have been seeing larger enrollment drops, especially in pre-K and kindergarten classes.
The pre-K enrollment drop is particularly significant, as the introduction of pre-K programs at more Wisconsin schools helped offset the decline in enrollment numbers for many school districts during the post-millennium decline. September 2020 numbers show a 15.8% decline in 4-year-old kindergarten (4K) and preschool special education, as well as a 4.9% decline in kindergarten enrollment.
Grades 1 through 12, which are subject to Wisconsin's mandatory school attendance laws, saw a 1.9% decrease in enrollment.
September enrollment numbers at Wisconsin schools are based on the "third Friday count," an accounting of all students who are enrolled and present or marked absent on the third Friday in September.
Wisconsin’s total school district headcount for the third Friday of September 2020 was 818,922. Wisconsin also saw a massive drop in summer school enrollment, which was down by 57.2% .
Independent charter schools saw an increase in enrollment, but a smaller one than previous years. Enrollment was up 1.6% in September 2020, compared to 2.8% the year before. Their 4K enrollment decreased by 16.7%, while kindergarten enrollment decreased by 0.1%. Grades 1 through 12 drove the increase, with enrollment growing 3.9% from the preceding year.
Wisconsin has four private school parental choice programs, which reported a 5.9% increase from September 2019 to September 2020, compared to 8.3% from 2018 to 2019. Enrollment increased by 2,577 students and 26 schools over last year. Like the independent charters, they saw a drop in 4K enrollment by 3.5%, though kindergarten enrollment increased by 5.1%. Grades 1-12 saw a 6.7%increase.
DPI will fill in more of the statewide enrollment picture in November, after analyzing data from families that homeschool and private schools that aren't in the parental choice programs, which have a later reporting deadline.
Though school enrollment numbers are used to determine how much schools can pull in through a combination of state aid money and property taxes, those revenue limits are based on a three-year "rolling" average of September enrollment and 40% of summer full-time enrollment, which means revenue limit decreases will not drop as precipitously in response to this year's enrollment decline as they would without taking into account the last two years.
The 2020-2021 state budget included a 3.5% increase in school funding, an addition of $163.5 million, for a total of $4.9 billion to be distributed to Wisconsin schools. The majority of that funding, according to DPI, is equalization aid, which helps offset local differences in property wealth. It's distributed based on a formula that includes school district expenditures, property values, and resident student counts.
Of the state's 421 districts, 297, or 71%, will receive more aid than last year; and 119, or 28%, will receive less. The aid amounts for each school district are available on DPI's website.
In addition to equalization aid, the state's general school aids include integration aid, or "Chapter 220" aid, and special adjustment, or "hold harmless," aid. Special adjustment aid, which will go to 49 districts this year, generally protects districts from experiencing more than a 15% reduction in aid from one year to the next.
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