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50,000 students are gone from Arizona public schools. Where did they go?

Lily Altavena Arizona Republic

(CNT) City News Talk #arizona

An estimated 50,000 students vanished from the state’s public district and charter schools over the summer, preliminary student count numbers for the 2020-2021 school year show.

The loss is nearly equivalent to the population of Casa Grande.

That means Arizona has lost 5% of its students between this school year and the end of last. Numbers also show kindergarten enrollment is down by 14%. 

Because the figures are early, it’s unclear where students have gone. The state’s population has not shifted enough for enrollment to plummet so dramatically. The number of families filing for homeschool has increased but not by 50,000.  

Education advocates fear some school-age students are not in school at all, and that the lag in kindergarten enrollment means that children in Arizona are losing out on early lessons vital to a child’s learning experience.

“It’s a lost year, and that’s really tragic when you think about it,” said Siman Qaasim, president of the Children’s Action Alliance, an Arizona nonprofit. 

The dramatic enrollment drops could also come with devastating and long-lasting financial repercussions for school districts.A loss of students will result in a loss of funding, which is tied to number of students. Districts and charters with more students receive more funding, because funding is calculated per student. 

The state will provide grants through federal aid money to help schools make up for lost revenue, but districts don’t yet know how much they’ll receive or if the money will make up for the funding gaps caused by plunging enrollment. 

Big districts report big enrollment drops

The biggest districts in the state all have lost students year over year: 

Mesa Public Schools was down by about 5.6% early in the school year compared with last year. Kindergarten enrollment is down by 16.8%, according to district documents.

K-6 enrollment in Chandler Unified schools is down about 8.8% compared with last year, according to district documents. 

Tucson Unified school enrollment is down 4.9%, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said during an Oct. 27 board meeting.

District schools have been losing enrollment for a decade, which is in part because of the proliferation of charter schools in the state. However, the state’s estimated enrollment drop for this year, 5%, includes charter schools because they are public schools that receive state funding.

Part of the enrollment drop is because of an increase in homeschooled students. Since August, 3,774 families have reported to Maricopa County that they planned to homeschool this year, compared with 971 during the same period in 2019, according to information from the Maricopa County School Superintendent office.

Dennis Goodwin is the superintendent of the Murphy Elementary School District in Phoenix. About 1,500 students attend Murphy schools, and most are low-income. Enrollment at his district is down by about 8%, he said.

Some families really wanted to send their children in-person and have switched to charters, he said. In other cases, students might not be schooling at all, he said, particularly in families where parents have to work and older kids are taking care of their siblings.

“They may have thought about signing up and doing online, but I think right now they’re just waiting for school to start up again,” he said. 

But in Murphy, COVID-19 is not under control enough to reopen school, he said. 

Struggles to keep students engaged 

Murphy is searching for the students it has lost.

District officials have worked to follow up with students who didn’t come back this school year to see if they’ve enrolled somewhere else. But the district’s population tends to move a lot and is difficult to track, Goodwin said. 

“There’s a lot of legwork that has to go to get it to find the kids and get them to make sure that they’re staying in contact,” he said. 

Sometimes, officials have to knock on doors. In one case, the district discovered that a sixth- and second-grader stopped logging on because their parents were in the hospital and the family’s internet was shut off. Murphy loaned the students wireless internet hot spots.

In Arizona, school is compulsory, which means state law requires every child between the ages of 6 and 16 to attend school.

But that law is difficult to enforce in a vast educational landscape.

Arizona is an open enrollment state, so students don’t have to attend their neighborhood schools, and districts don’t track every child in their boundaries.

Some of the sharpest enrollment declines are at the kindergarten level, which is not mandatory in Arizona. But students learn a lot in kindergarten, including early lessons in reading and math. 

Qaasim said she is particularly concerned for students living in poverty, who tend to fall behind faster than students from wealthier backgrounds. Putting off school for a year may also mean developmental disabilities in students can go undetected for longer, meaning less academic intervention. 

“We’re just so worried that so many will be unprepared,” she said. 

Enrollment declines cost money

Tucson Unified has formed a task force to try to reverse the enrollment loss, Trujillo said at the Oct. 27 school board meeting.

“Every student leaving the district is not just a number,” he said. “We have to be very, very strategic, we have to be very, very swift in our attempt to re-engage those families.” 

The district estimates it will lose about $25 million this year because of the enrollment declines and other factors. 

Gov. Doug Ducey this year has promised school federal funding in the form of an enrollment stability grant, which he said would guarantee funding up to 98% of a school’s enrollment in the previous school year. The grant process is ongoing, so schools will not know the final amount until late November.

Estimates so far are not adding up to the 98% guarantee. 

Tucson estimates a grant of $20.5 million, about $5 million short of the funding lost this school year.

And the grants are only available this year, with no promise for extra funding in 2021. The impact of COVID-19 on student academics, however, will likely persist for years. Qaasim said schools are facing a funding cliff, all while students need as much intervention as possible. 

“That costs money,” she said.