Michigan school enrollments projected to drop

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — A forecast for Michigan’s public school enrollment is bleak.

The National Center for Education Statistics recently predicted that public school enrollment in Michigan will decline more than 5 percent by 2025. It is one of only nine states facing that fate.

“Most districts have seen a decrease in enrollment over the past several years, granted some more than others, but this is widespread throughout our state,” said Chris Wigent, the executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

As of 2017, a little more than 1.3 million students are enrolled in  public schools. A 5 percent drop represents a loss of 65,000 pupils.

A school district receives a little more than $7,500 from the state per enrolled student. To put those numbers in perspective, if a district has 1,500 students and loses 30 children a year, that’s more than a $225,000 loss. But when losses pile up, it doesn’t mean other expenses can be cut, said Wigent.

When students leave, it doesn’t happen in only one grade, but across the entire kindergarten through 12th grade system, Wigent said. That means the number of teachers can’t necessarily be reduced. And expenses like transportation remain the same, he added.

“Quality education is one big part of the equation to continue to have our state move forward in a positive economic direction,” Wigent said. “There are many parts of that equation. They all have an impact on each other. It’s like a Rubik’s cube.”

And enrollment is a significant piece of that puzzle.

Enrollment doesn’t just fall for no reason. Michigan’s state demographer, Eric Guthrie, says it can be because of a fall in birth rate, an increase in deaths and migration out of the state.

Michigan hasn’t had an increase in its mortality rate, so that leaves the other two options.

”When we look at the structure of the population, we see fewer people of early childbearing years, so we’re going to see a decline of young persons,” Guthrie said. “If you look at the population structure of Michigan, you can see right after those college years, we have a reduction in populations in that 25-40 year age group.”

U.S. census figures show Michigan saw .7 percent of people ages 22-34 migrating from the state between 2014 and 2015.

But that’s only part of the puzzle. For those who stay in the state, Guthrie said many delay having children to complete their own educations.

“These things mixed together are driving down our school aid populations and will continue to do so for the near future,” Guthrie said.

The author of the study that cites those projections says the prediction model is usually fairly accurate. Those projections come from an analysis of the number of students enrolled in one grade, compared with the number of those enrolled in the grade below.

Michigan public school enrollment has been declining for some time. The National Center for Education Statistics reports its K-12 enrollment is at its lowest in five decades — from 2.1 million in 1971 to 1.4 million in 2016.

A reduction in enrollment also leads to a reduction in educators, Wigent said.

“The biggest impact that we’ve seen is a reduction of salaries for teachers, for support staff and administrators,” Wigent said. “And the outcome of that is we have this shortage of educators in our state.”

Allegan Public Schools has had a decline in enrollment for the last 10 years, and like much of the state has suffered a decline in teachers.

“Obviously, the biggest impact is going to be on our staffing levels,” said Allegan Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Harness. “If you budget-crunch for that long, you start to lose a lot of important people.”

Wigent says the state needs to pay attention to studies that show where the money for education is going. Those numbers will play an important role in how the state tackles future education reform.

“I think we’re going to need to look at those carefully and we’re going to have to prioritize and pay attention to how schools need to be funded,” Wigent said. “And really take a look at school reform in Michigan. It seems all the arrows point to that right now.”

Michigan passed major tax and school finance changes 20 years ago. As everyone knows, things have changed over the past 20 years, Wigent said, and it’s time to look at it again.