California’s public schools are headed for a ‘fiscal cliff’

Thanks to a slowing and aging population, California’s public schools are expected to hemorrhage students over the next 10 years. The California Department of Finance now projects an 11.4% drop in statewide enrollment (703,000 fewer students) by 2031. If that happens, many districts will be staring at a “fiscal cliff,” warns Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) CEO Matt Fine. He’s urging districts to start preparing now.

The impacts will be greatest in coastal counties. According to School Services of California, the following counties will see the biggest enrollment declines:

  1. Los Angeles (19.98%)
  2. Ventura (19.51%)
  3. Santa Cruz (18.16%)
  4. Sonoma (16.94%)
  5. Santa Clara (16.21%)
  6. Napa (16.06%) 
  7. Humboldt (15.38%)
  8. Marin (14.92%)
  9. Monterey (14.66%)
  10. Imperial (14.14%)

By contrast, these smaller counties are projected to see the biggest enrollment growth:

  1. Alpine (32.88%)
  2. Sutter (18.13%)
  3. Amador (17.50%)
  4. El Dorado (16.49%)
  5. Sierra (11.14%)
  6. Calaveras (10.84%)
  7. San Benito (9.43%)
  8. Mariposa (8.01%)
  9. Glenn (7.18%)
  10. Placer (6.28%)

While longer-term population shifts are the primary cause of the declines, the pandemic helped speed up the trend. Dissatisfaction with distance learning followed by public health fears and disagreements over vaccine and masking policies have caused many parents to switch or consider switching to private or homeschooling.

Districts received lots of cash from the federal government, but that’s only temporary. After 2023-2024, it’s a different ballgame and they’ll need some type of help to brace for what’s coming. Fine told EdSource the Legislature may consider an attendance formula based on a three-year rolling average. Another idea, supported by West Contra Costa Unified’s associate superintendent of business services Tony Wold, would establish a base funding amount with added bonuses to incentivize attendance growth.

Whatever happens, it’s clear some difficult decisions will have to be made.


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