Be Careful What You Wish For!

With projected tax revenues once again exceeding initial expectations and unprecedented amounts of federal funding flowing to California’s public schools, one would think that members of the Golden State’s public education establishment would be contentedly licking their chops. But as anyone who has been paying attention is aware, nothing could be farther from the truth. Looming over the rosy, short-term financial picture is a prediction made by California Department of Finance (DOF) analysts – one that should give pause to the state’s private school community, as well. As reported by EdSource, the DOF foresees an eleven percent decline in statewide enrollment by the year 2029-30.

This dire forecast comes at a time when other trends and developments point to an approaching period of austerity. President Biden appears to have abandoned efforts to revive his Building Back Better legislative package, which would have infused another massive tranche of federal funding into the nation’s public schools. Year over year inflation has soared to 8.5 percent. And the current boom phase of California’s perennial boom-bust economy is now very long in the tooth.

California’s public schools have already started hemorrhaging students. Combined enrollment in “traditional” public and public charter schools fell steeply, from 6,163,001 in 2019-20 to 5,846,317 in the current school year, marking an overall decline of slightly more than 5 percent. While teachers unions and related interest groups have long clamored for class-size reduction, this wasn’t the way they’d hoped to achieve it.

Multiple factors, including declining birth rates and a drop-off in migration to California from other states have contributed to the skid in public school enrollment. With the COVID-19 pandemic having made it easier for many employees to work remotely, a growing number will continue to relocate to communities in which they can obtain substantially more bang for their inflation-depreciated housing bucks. And California is unlikely to be on their house-hunting list. In 2020, California’s population declined for the first time since the state’s founding in 1850.

It will not be lost upon public school advocates that enrollment in California’s private schools enjoyed a 4 percent year-over-year increase in enrollment. This accomplishment should come as great news to private school leaders and stakeholders. It was, after all, owing to their herculean efforts that private schools succeeded in maintaining continuity of high-quality instruction, meeting individual student’s needs, and sustaining a sense of community throughout the duration of the pandemic.

But as the saying goes: be careful what you wish for. For the past two decades, it was the burgeoning growth of charter schools that commanded the attention of the teachers unions and allied public education interest groups. Private schools, where enrollment was in a state of prolonged decline, were an afterthought, if that. Now, however, charter school enrollment has dipped (for the first time in some 20 years), and new regulations promulgated by the Biden Administration are widely seen as putting the clamps on additional charter school growth. In the current environment, a four percent uptick in enrollment paints a potential political bullseye around California’s private schools.

With no school choice measure on this November’s state ballot – an education savings account initiative fell far short of securing the needed number of signatures – the California Teachers Association is sitting on a $50 million war chest in search of a target. The unions and their allies may not be able to do much about reversing the birthrate trend, or lowering the cost of housing, but they can certainly set their sights upon winnowing students away from private schools…or worse.

Imposing costly, unfunded mandates upon the state’s K-12 private schools is one way to turn the screws. For a current example, readers need look no farther than AB 2232, a bill authored by California Assemblymember Kevin McCarty that would force private schools to comply with a series of new requirements relative to heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems. Such legislation will be enacted only if accompanying funding is made available to the state’s public schools, leaving private schools in the lurch.

We, in California’s private school community, should no doubt take both pleasure and a justifiable sense of pride in the growth of our state’s private school enrollment. Such sentiments, however, should be tempered by the cautionary observation that others would most certainly take delight in curbing our enthusiasm.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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