9021 Uh-Oh: Declining Enrollment in Affluent School Districts and the Quest for Greatly More Public Education for All Kids Now

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I start out this morning building on Friday’s post wherein I encouraged us all to get ready to resist the dreadful new proposed regs coming out of the Cindy Marten crowd at the US Department of Education. The Journal chimed in on Monday.

The National Review followed suit …

… decrying the expedited timeframe and truncated process the administration is using to attempt to jam through major pain to charter schools.

And now the National Alliance has made their call to action.

I’ve certainly responded. I hope you will do the same.

Meanwhile up in the President’s home state …

… protectors of the Establishment are trying to jam a moratorium through the legislature in response to some CharterFolk having the temerity to want to improve educational opportunity in their local community.

We will see how these things play out. But both speak to the fact that, contrary to what is being reported in many different venues, the protectors of the Establishment do not feel like they have overplayed their hands and are in fact doubling down on efforts to stop the charter school movement, thereby underscoring the critical importance of our world having advocacy organizations at both a state and federal level ready to take on the scope of challenge that is being thrown against us right now.

9021 Uh-Oh: Declining Enrollment in Affluent School Districts and the Quest for Greatly More Public Education

Turning to the main topic for today’s post, I start with an uh-oh. A 9021 uh-oh:

As in Beverly Hills 90210, the iconic television show from the 90’s. Though I’ve never watched a single second of it, I would wager a lot that a certain two-word phrase was never heard during the show’s entire decade-long run:

Declining enrollment.

But they are two words that are being said time and time again in 90210 currently. 16 months ago, the Beverly Hills Weekly …

… ran a story …

… highlighting the fact that enrollment declines in Beverly Hills Unified are going to intensify in the years ahead.

What the article didn’t mention was that these projected enrollment declines are on top of significant declines that have already happened in the past five years …

… and the five years before that.

Checking the DataQuest website, I see that Beverly Hills had an enrollment of about 5,000 going back to the beginning of the 90210 series. So, if the Weekly’s projections bear out, by 2027 the school district will be serving one-half the kids that it had during Brandon and Brenda’s heyday.

(Does that mean they’d call a sequel “45105”?)

Even insulated Beverly Hills recognizes that this news represents a significant uh-oh.

As it turns out, none of the enrollment decline happened during the show’s run. In fact, enrollment held steady for a full decade after 90210 went off the air. And then, in 2009-10, as the LA Times reported …

… the district moved away from accepting students from outside the district, shifting to “Basic Aid” status, which essentially equated to the district deciding to turn down state money to fund its schools only with local tax revenues, thereby allowing them to spend more per pupil than statewide funding levels. And, the rationale went, if the district was going to foot the whole bill, they didn’t want any money going to kids from outside the district. So kick current outsiders out, and put up a wall to keep any new ones from getting in.

The change came nearly synchronous with a change out of LAUSD which put the parents of 10,000 students on notice that the district was no longer going to approve inter-district transfers …

… saying that parents should be delighted to bring their kids back to LAUSD given how many shiny new buildings the district had built of late. So they put up their own wall to keep kids from getting out.

Changes in California state law gave parents with jobs located within a school district the right to enroll their kids in that district. So, Beverly Hills’ enrollment policies granted students of parents employed in the district the right to apply for transfers so long as there was space available and so long as their kids’ attendance wasn’t seen to “compromise” the education of resident kids.

It’s a policy that is still in effect today.

But now, enrollment levels in Beverly Hills have become so low, the district is realizing that it needs to start thinking anew. The city is not growing its housing supply. Overall population is flat and growing older. Homes are so expensive that parents of young kids can’t move in. The high school is getting so small that it can’t offer enough electives, and so more and more parents are turning to private schools.

This, of course, is not a problem that is unique to Beverly Hills, California. It’s one that is arising in many affluent areas. A mirror image of the west coast variety is emerging in the Beverly Hills of Michigan this month.

It’s another affluent district experiencing rapidly declining enrollment which has led to a huge fiscal problem. (It’s zip code is 48025, with a huge uh-oh at the very heart of the district.)

You name the affluent area:

In Evanston … (60202, call it a “double uh-oh.”)

In Newton … (02456 … it’s a district that leads with its uh-oh.)

It creates a moment of fascinating tension.

These school districts that have set themselves up to be educational citadels walled off from the rest of society for generations are now finding themselves in situations where they suddenly want to bring outside students in to avoid having to go through the agonizing process of closing schools due to declining enrollment.

Some states make the process of recruiting students across district lines easier. Minnesota is famous for its open enrollment law.

Colorado’s law makes it fairly straightforward for districts wanting to be entrepreneurial.

California, on the other hand, makes it extremely difficult. 12 years since having first started to choke off transfers out of the district, LA Unified’s website still conveys that …

… while it will process requests from parent who work in other districts and for anyone wanting to come in, for anyone wanting to go out the message couldn’t be clearer: “don’t even bother.”

By rights, the school district where I live in Davis, California, should be facing a problem every bit as severe as Beverly Hills. Ours is a very progressive college town. Everyone advertises their welcoming of every kind of neighbor.

But then we pass and repass some of the most restrictive zoning laws in California preventing virtually any new housing from being built. The last renewal passed in 2020 by 83% to 17%.

And so like Beverly Hills, our demographics have gone older and more affluent, and now people with school-aged children can’t afford to move in. So we too are now seeing a precipitous drop in resident student enrollment in the local school district.

But the Davis school district (zip code 95618) was able to find a back door around the inter-district transfer problem, allowing them to avoid an uh-oh, by opening a charter school …

… you know, the kind of public school that any students can attend regardless where they reside?

With thousands of kids in surrounding districts desperate to get their kids into what is perceived to be a better school district in Davis, over time a significant portion of Da Vinci’s kids have come from surrounding areas. Somewhat predictably given that so many of the kids come from outside the district, the school is not seen to be as big of a priority as neighborhood district schools. A couple of years ago, the district passed a $150M facilities bond without including a dollar for Da Vinci, though the charter school’s facility was by far the most inadequate of any in the district.

It led to an outcry …

… that eventually forced the district to dedicate a portion of the bond to the charter school’s facilities. While it may not have been the district’s first thought, at least the investment in the facility made it more likely the charter will continue to be a draw for students from across the region for many years to come.

Other school districts haven’t been nearly as strategic in preparing for their emerging uh-oh’s.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of focus both locally …

… and nationally …

… on a school district in an affluent community adjacent to Oakland Unified having it’s uh-oh moment and deciding that after generations of keeping outsiders out, it was going to begin actively welcoming them in.

It has been seen by some as an insensitive ploy given the under-enrollment crisis happening in Oakland Unified right now.

At least some parents in Oakland, though, see it differently:

Oakland parent Lakisha Young [says] the parents she works with are no different than parents with privilege, who seek out opportunities for their kids.

“If we found out there was a great school on the freaking moon, our moms would figure out how to build a rocket,” said Young, who is the CEO of Oakland Reach, a parent-run group working with underserved families. “Our families want to know about all of their options, whether they’re in Piedmont or on the moon.”

Unfortunately, for Ms. Young and her follow courageous advocates at Oakland Reach

… it would be easier for Oakland parents to enroll their kids in a school on the moon than one located in Piedmont. Schools on the moon, unlike schools in Piedmont, don’t require the approval of an inter-district transfer in order to attend.

Meanwhile, up the 80 in Sacramento, the teacher strike is now moving into its sixth day.

A big part of what gives the teacher union and the district administration confidence that they can take their sweet time working on a deal is their awareness that parents cannot transfer their kids to any surrounding school district, all of which remain open, because to do so would require the approval of inter-district transfers, something that Sacramento Unified would be certain to deny. And so, the district and the union remain on track for agreeing to a new contract that the district cannot afford. And to pay for it, the district will take money from the kids of the future, just like the district and the union took from today’s kids to pay for agreements of the past.

It leaves the parents of Sacramento, like the parents of Reach, and like the parents in underperforming urban school districts across the country, yearning for lunar educational opportunity. It’s an uh-oh almost too big to think about, the notion that parents simply having the right to enroll their kids in whatever school they want represents some kind of societal “moonshot.”

For generations, CharterFolk, our country’s public education system has operated as something that is barely public. Walls have been thrown up to keep kids and families out and in. Low income kids and kids of color have been the ones that have suffered most. What has resulted is a circumstance where that which is supposed to be one of our society’s biggest efforts to overcome historical unfairnesses – our public education system – has become instead one of the greatest perpetuators of those very same unfairnesses.

Now we enter a moment when those who have fought long and hard to keep kids out with very thick and high walls have new incentive to invite kids in. We should be clear eyed. This should have happened decades ago simply because it was the right thing to do, not because it serves some newly emergent financial self-interest. And the way we move forward must reflect a recognition that, like the school district in Davis that treats outside students as secondary in importance, so too will other school districts if we don’t design our policies with a hard-edged sense of realism.

Going forward, our orientation must be that the 90210s and the Piedmonts of the world should not only be empowered to accept kids from outside their districts, they should be required to, not to some school of the districts’ choosing and to their own convenience, but to every school in their districts. We start at 5% of seats at every school in the country being required to be set aside for students from outside the schools’ attendance boundaries, and if there are more applicants than there are spaces available, admission will be determined by lottery, with low income students and other socio-economically disadvantaged students having a statistical advantage in that lottery. And, of course, if any parent wants to leave a district, they may do so completely of their own volition, doing away with the walls that hem students in to schools that many parents desperately want to exit. By year two, we go to 6%, and so on until we finally begin dismantling the walls that have plagued our barely public education system for decades.

Charter schools play an essential role in helping our society make this transition. We open as many new schools as we can to demonstrate the possible, and we put our collective heft to work on policy change designed to purge our barely public education system of its uh-ohs until we finally achieve our shared goal: a system of public education that is greatly more public than the one we have today.