The education landscape in Texas could see a major reconfiguration in the years to come due to projected statewide enrollment trends at public schools.
Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath testified at a State Senate committee hearing earlier this month, per Spectrum News:
“For the last two decades, student enrollment in public schools in Texas has been growing by leaps and bounds. We probably added 70,000 kids each school year for the better part of the last 10 to 15 years. To put that in perspective, it’s sort of like an Austin ISD-sized school system just emerging, whole cloth, every single year.”
That growth slowed considerably amid COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and in their aftermath. The trend is now poised to reverse, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Public school enrollment only grew by 1% between the 2020-2021 and the 2021-2022 school years, an increase of 55,784 students.
Morath suggested this turnaround is due to a broad demographic decline.
“You think about Texas being a magnet for population and it does continue to be, but the people moving here have less children than then [sic] the people that are here, and everybody is essentially having fewer children post-Great Recession than they were pre-Great Recession,” said Morath, per the Herald Banner.
“We would anticipate, given the demographic data that we see, declines in the number of school-aged children over time in Texas,” he said.
Declining enrollment could pose budgetary issues for public school districts since state funding of education in Texas is tied to the actual number of students being taught in a given system, measured by average attendance for the school year.
News of the projected dip in enrollment figures comes as pro-school-choice advocates are renewing a push to advance bills at the Texas Legislature that would enable taxpayer money to follow students attending private schools, as previously reported in The Dallas Express.
“Education policy needs an overhaul. It’s time to put parents in charge of their child’s education [and] future. The legislature can achieve this goal by creating Education Savings Accounts … which will allow families to direct their education dollars to the school of their choice,” said James Quintero of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, in a statement to The Dallas Express.
Such savings accounts are just one of the myriad proposals being filed at the legislature dealing with education funding reform.
“It would be a big win to see school vouchers or state-sponsored scholarships for private schools,” a spokesperson for Dallas Jewish Conservatives told The Dallas Express.
Still, opponents of school choice worry that fewer students and less state funding will force school districts to make budget cuts after already getting on the hook for staff and facilities they may no longer be able to sustain.
Bob Popinski of Raise Your Hand Texas told the Houston Chronicle, “When you’re having enrollment declines, some school districts are going to have to really think hard about what campuses they’re going to keep open.”
Popinski further told the news outlet that the enactment of school choice policies would add a third player (private schools) into an already heated competition for students between traditional public schools and charter schools.
“Three separate systems would be a constant battle for appropriate and adequate funding,” he said to the Houston Chronicle.
Quintero does not see it that way, though.
“Traditional K-12 schools are hemorrhaging enrollment due to growing concerns over content, quality, and the politicization of the classroom. This steep decline is evidence that parents are ready for something different, something better,” he stated to The Dallas Express.
Some of the issues Quintero cited certainly apply to the Dallas Independent School District (DISD), which has garnered criticism over its alleged embracing of critical race theory, as previously reported in The Dallas Express.
DISD has also been logging dismal student achievement outcomes, with only 41% of students testing at grade level on last year’s STAAR exams and almost 20% of its graduating Class of 2022 failing to earn a diploma in four years, despite the best efforts of the district’s teachers and principals.