This story was updated on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. to include input from Idaho Public Charter Commission Director Jenn Thompson.
The Nampa School District expected to have pretty flat enrollment this year, with maybe a drop of around 60 kids, in part because of charter school expansion.
But one month into the year, Nampa’s enrollment is down nearly 600 students, about 4 percent of last year’s enrollment.
“There’s still some coming and going, we’re not really sure where we’re going to end up,” spokeswoman Kathleen Tuck said. “We’re hoping that at some point it all settles down and we know what we’ve got.”
The State Board of Education won’t have statewide enrollment numbers until the end of October. But early counts suggest enrollment drops in districts across the state.
Pocatello’s enrollment estimates are down about 4 percent, similar to Twin Falls and Kuna. Lakeland superintendent Becky Meyer said enrollment in her district is down 9 percent.
And it’s not just the large districts, either. Marsing, Payette and Teton all told EdNews their enrollment dropped this year.
District enrollment matters because it determines how much money schools get from the state. Enrollment numbers are highly variable as students move from online education to brick and mortar schools, and districts say it’s hard to pinpoint just one reason for the drop. Fear, disruption and uncertainty because of COVID-19 is certainly contributing.
“We didn’t necessarily expect to see an increase in enrollment this year, ” Twin Falls spokeswoman Eva Craner said. “But a decrease is definitely out of the ordinary.”
Enrollment drop in the younger grades
Falling kindergarten enrollment is driving much of the decline. Nampa is down about 200 kindergarten students.
Vallivue’s kindergarten class is down about 150 kids, assistant superintendent Lisa Boyd said, a big chunk of the district’s 400 student drop in enrollment.
Boyd has a few personal theories about why kindergartener numbers are down. For one, kindergarten isn’t required in Idaho, so parents might well just decide to keep kids home an extra year to keep them safe from the potential impact of COVID-19. Also, because kindergarteners haven’t ever had school before — and don’t know what they’re missing — they’re not as likely as older kids to lobby their parents about returning to school.
“I can’t think of the last time we didn’t have growth in the double digits over here,” Boyd said. “Our hope is that all of this…starts to slow down and we can go back to business as usual.”
Districts say COVID measures help offset funding loss
Nampa stood to lose $4 million if enrollment was down 500 students, according to the formula Idaho usually uses to fund schools.
But earlier this year, the State Board of Education said it would give schools funding based on student enrollment, rather than the traditional average-daily attendance model. The move was intended to give schools some funding consistency while kids move back and forth from in-person to online education throughout this unusual year.
Schools lose some funding every year under the average-daily-attendance formula, Tuck said, because enrolled students don’t always show up to be counted. With the enrollment-based funding, Nampa will be closer to breaking even.
The Twin Falls school district “got a little lucky” financially, Craner said. When teachers retired or left last spring, the district opted to hold off on filling those positions. Those cost savings will help offset the enrollment drop, Craner said, as will federal CARES act funding.
Plus, districts benefit from a state policy that says schools won’t lose more than 3 percent of their previous year’s funding if enrollment drops.
Charters present a mixed picture
Virtual charter schools are seeing a boom in new students amid the pandemic, representatives told the State Board of Education last month. Enrollment appears more stable at some 15 brick-and-mortar schools surveyed by Terry Ryan, CEO of charter support nonprofit BLUUM.
But overall, Idaho’s 70-plus charters are reporting a similar decline in growth, said Jenn Thompson, director of Idaho’s Public Charter School Commission. Many of the state-supervised schools are enrolling 5-10 percent fewer students than they projected, she said.
Both Ryan and Thompson called the numbers a “moving target,” this year in particular.
Idaho charters benefit from a unique enrollment model which could help them fill seats if students leave, Ryan said. However, they also stand to weather bigger financial losses if they can’t keep enrollment high.
Idaho’s charter schools operate on a lottery-based enrollment system, which means that if a school is full, parents add their student to a waiting list and new students are chosen at random.
The waiting lists help stabilize enrollment for charters. The lottery could also dissuade parents from unenrolling their children, Ryan said — if a child pulls out of a charter school, he or she would have to redo the lottery process to try and get back in.
“That’s an interesting dynamic that benefits charters in this pandemic,” Ryan said.
The charter commission considers enrollment an important factor in whether schools will be able to remain financially stable, Thompson said. If a school can’t meet or exceed 95 percent of projected enrollment, that can lead to “significant financial struggles.”
And, charters don’t qualify for that state policy that protects districts from large enrollment funding cuts. The stakes are high if their students decide to leave.
“If 50 percent of their students walk away, they lose all of that money,” Ryan said.