AUGUSTA — Maine public school enrollment has rebounded only slightly this year after a 4% decline in 2020, indicating that most students who left during the pandemic have not returned.
The steep decline in enrollment — the basis for determining state funding to school districts — has prompted the Department of Education to propose changes to its funding formula for the second straight year to protect school districts from losses. Subsidiaries due to declining enrollment.
“Even a small change in student enrollment can throw this very delicate system out of balance,” Education Commissioner Pender Makin said.
His team created several scenarios to assess how different adjustments to the formula would affect school funding across the state.
Although there are more students in 2021 than in 2020, further adjustments to the formula were necessary this year as it is based on a two-year average. Funding for the current school year has been calculated to include higher enrollment in 2019, while this year’s calculation takes into account two years of low enrollment.
“This year you can imagine the perfect storm,” Makin said. “Fewer students are onboarded and property values have gone up so much. This could have painted a rather gloomy picture if the state had not proposed adjustments to the funding formula.
Even as enrollment remains low, Makin acknowledges that many costs to school districts, particularly staffing and operating costs, have remained the same or even increased due to inflation.
“Ultimately, schools are not going to lay off teachers,” she said, referring to preliminary funding amounts that were sent to school administrators in January.
As an example, the Mt. Blue School District experienced a 7% drop in enrollment from 2019 to 2021, but the district expects to receive approximately $60,000 more in public funds for the school year at come, according to Superintendent Christian Elkington.
Still, some school districts are facing tough decisions as they consider their planned state grant, with one Franklin County district already voting to reconfigure its schools this fall.
“It’s different in every district,” Makin said. “Unfortunately there are winners and losers every year. We found a solution that had more winners and fewer losers. And where there are losses, they can be explained by forces other than the impact of COVID.
From fall 2019 to 2020, Maine public school enrollment fell 4.4%, from 180,336 to 172,474 students. There are only 684 more students enrolled in 2021 compared to 2020, an increase of 0.4%. The figures remain just under 4% lower than in 2019.
Makin said she was pleased to see that many of those increases were seen in the lower grades, including kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, which saw the biggest declines in 2020.
Maine public school enrollment was declining long before the pandemic, dropping an average of 0.41% each year between 2012 and 2019. But as schools transitioned to hybrid and distance learning, many parents turned to alternative education methods, including home schooling, online. charter schools and private schools.
As public school enrollment dwindled, homeschooling exploded. According to DOE data, there were 53% more home-schooled students in 2021 (10,332) than in 2019 (6,763), an increase of 3,569. In 2021, there were 14% more home-schooled students. fewer home-schooled students than in 2020 (12,085), indicating high retention.
Some parents who re-enrolled their children in public school this year did so reluctantly and later expressed regret, pointing to pandemic mitigation policies and the disruption caused by quarantines. Other parents said the pandemic had given them the option of homeschooling and that they did not plan to send their children away.
Adjustments to the state funding formula will not take into account all of the factors that have changed significantly during the pandemic. Property valuation, which rose 6% statewide last year and 5% the year before, is a key part of the formula that will remain unchanged.
Between 2007 and 2020, property values increased by an average of 1.8% each year in comparison.
Makin said changes in property value, which are used to help determine how well each community can afford the overall cost of local school districts, are considered normal fluctuations. Still, she acknowledged that increases in property values do not necessarily correlate with an increase in available community funds.
On Jan. 21, principals of the Strong-based Maine School Administrative District 58 voted to reconfigure their schools, turning one of three elementary schools into a middle school, in anticipation of a second year of funding cuts to the State.
MSAD 58 received nearly half a million dollars less in state grants for 2021-2022 than the previous school year, leading the district to dip into the Federal Emergency Relief Fund to elementary and secondary schools to pay 15 of its staff members this year.
The school’s reconfiguration will allow the district to save costs and minimize its losses in the state funding formula, especially as enrollment is expected to continue to decline, according to a community letter written by the superintendent. Todd Sanders.
“So that schools aren’t being funded on an artificially low-case scenario, we’ve adjusted the formula in a way that we believe is fair and does the most good and the least harm,” Makin said, clarifying: “I don’t think it hurts. It just helps some more and some have these additional factors that we can’t adapt to.
Declining public school enrollment isn’t the only funding factor the state has adjusted for. After offering free lunches to all students starting in 2020 with the help of federal emergency funds, school districts collected far fewer free and reduced-price lunch forms from parents.
These forms are used to track the number of disadvantaged students in each district. Districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students receive additional state funding.
“This is a very important measure for our state’s education funding, both from the federal government and it is again reflected in the state funding formula. There is an additional subsidy… for each student listed in the disadvantaged count,” Makin said.