Cities Face Increasing Crisis as Fewer Kids Enroll and Schools Shrink

Schools that already experienced decreasing enrollment during the pandemic, with some schools in larger cities losing a third of their students, continue to suffer from disinvestment, causing a further exodus of families.

When the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated enrollment declined in districts across the U.S., many families switched to charter schools, private schools, homeschools, and other options. Students also moved away or vanished completely from school attendance rolls for unknown reasons.

Many districts, like the Chicago school district, give schools money for each enrolled student. The loss of students for whatever reason means smaller schools are now struggling to pay for necessary, fixed costs, including counselors, principals, and upkeep of buildings.

Many districts direct extra money to smaller schools to address the shortages by diverting dollars from larger schools. For example, in Chicago, the district allocates an average of $19,000 annually per student at small high schools. In contrast, students at schools with larger populations get $10,000, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat/AP.

“I love small schools, but small schools are very expensive,” said Chicago schools chief Pedro Martinez at a recent school board meeting. “We can get some really creative, innovative models, but we need the funding.”

Smaller schools are also stretched very thin, according to Martinez. They offer fewer arts and sports programs and clubs. Some elementary schools also have to group students from different grade levels in one classroom.

Smaller schools are popular with teachers, community members, and families because of their supportive, tight-knit feel. Supporters argue districts should funnel more dollars into these schools, many of which are located in predominantly Latino and Black neighborhoods hit hard by the pandemic. Schools serve as points of local pride and community hubs; some facilities are used for multiple purposes, even as they lose students.

The cycle of declining enrollment

Race has also proven to be a key factor. Nationally, schools with more students of color are statistically more likely to be closed, affecting communities that often already feel unfairly targeted. Part of the difficulty is what is called the “cycle of declining enrollment.” Schools’ enrollment declines, which leads to financial instability, prompting more families to leave. This cycle is again more pronounced at schools with more students of color.

When schools are facing closure, it is “devastating” to families, according to the acting director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, Suleika Soto. The Alliance advocates for underrepresented students. “It means you have to uproot. And then, if parents don’t like it, then they’ll remove their children from the public school system, which again adds to the toxic cycle.”

Nonetheless, some urban school districts with declining enrollment, including Indianapolis, Kansas City, Missouri, and Denver, are considering closing schools. Earlier in 2022, the school board in Oakland, California, voted to close numerous small schools despite furious community protests.

“School budgets have been cut as a way to keep more schools open,” said Shanthi Gonzales, former Oakland school board member. Gonzales resigned in May shortly after voting in support of school closures. “There are really awful tradeoffs.”

In other areas, school leaders have continued to invest in these schools, buoyed by federal Covid-19 relief funds. Chicago plans to use about $140 million of the $2.8 billion it received in Covid-19 relief to shore up small schools this school year. Martinez, who took over as chief of schools last fall, has avoided talk of closures, pushing for more money from the state and saying he wants to study how the district can try to make its campuses more appealing to families.

In New York City and Los Angeles, officials say they focus not on school closures but on luring students back into the system. However, federal relief money will soon run out. Districts must budget the entirety of the money by September 2024. When funds are no longer available, districts may struggle to keep all the smaller schools afloat.

“It’s a huge problem,” according to an education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, Bruce Fuller. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult for superintendents to justify keeping these places open as the number of these schools continues to rise.”