Why declining school enrollment is a ‘major concern’ in Hawaii

Hawaii is on track to have fewer students enrolled in state schools by 2027 than at any time since the early years of statehood.

A decade after Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School closed its doors due to low enrollment, longtime residents can still feel the ripple effect the closure had on the great Kaimuki neighborhood.

The 99-year-old school served as a meeting place for the Kaimuki Neighborhood Council, which no longer has a regular meeting place. It hosted annual public celebrations of Queen Liliuokalani’s birthday. Nearby residents used the basketball courts after hours.

“I’m still upset about it,” said Lyle Bullock, a former neighborhood council member whose daughter was attending the school when it closed. “Not for me personally, but for the community.”

It has been years since the state took action to close a school, but other communities may have to make tough decisions like the one made in Kaimuki if public school enrollment continues to decline.

If current projections hold, by the 2027-28 school year, Hawaii will have fewer students enrolled in state public schools than at any time since 1962.

Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Primary School closed more than a decade ago, but the effect on the community is still being felt. Credit: David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023 (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It’s a startling data point that could have big repercussions for public education in a state where many rural and smaller schools are already struggling to keep programs afloat.

“It’s a significant concern,” Bruce Voss, president of the state Board of Education, said of the declines, adding that at this time the BOE is not planning or considering any closures.

“We have a lot on our plate right now to remedy the learning loss caused by the pandemic,” Voss said. “That’s our main focus now.”

But some education experts say now is the time to start having tough conversations about what a dwindling student population might mean, and to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to better prepare for the future.

Schools across the country with declining enrollment will face serious fiscal pressure to reduce staffing and close under-enrolled schools, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford University professor who has been studying changes in school enrollment. public schools during the pandemic.

“I think a lot of us are focused on this propitious time where a lot of states have access to these additional funds from the federal government, because it at least gives states and districts some fiscal leeway to navigate this,” Dee said.

The pandemic made things worse

Enrollment in DOE schools had slowly but steadily declined in Hawaii before the pandemic, driven by out-migration, fewer births and the growing popularity of public charter schools. Hawaii also has one of the highest private school enrollment rates in the country.

Covid-19 significantly accelerated the falls.

Nationally and in Hawaii, many parents did not enroll their children in kindergarten, a particularly difficult age to participate remotely. But there wasn’t a huge increase in first-grade enrollment during the second year of the pandemic, Dee said.

“It suggests to me that the enrollment losses will be long-lasting,” Dee said.

Enrollment in Hawaii has declined approximately 6.8% over the past five years and is currently projected by the DOE to decline another 5.4% by 2027-28.

“A decrease of that magnitude is substantial,” Dee said.

Declining enrollment is a concern across the country, and Dee says some districts in other states are already dealing with school closures, but it’s particularly concerning for small schools in Hawaii. Most state funding for education in Hawaii is allocated using what is known as a weighted student formula, a per-student figure that takes into account student needs, such as special education services.

The formula was designed to make school funding more equitable across schools and track students, said Brian Hallett, deputy superintendent of the DOE’s office of fiscal services. That means schools already anticipate a certain degree of fluctuation each year based on enrollment changes.

“It’s not entirely a problem that schools are underfunded, it’s just when it gets to such a magnitude that they can’t do what they need to do,” Hallett said.

Enrollment losses are not evenly distributed across the state. Some schools, such as Kahului Elementary School on Maui and Haleiwa Elementary School on Oahu, are projected to lose 20% of their students between now and 2027-28. Some schools are expected to see growth, including Barbers Point Elementary School on Oahu, which is slated to increase enrollment by 11%.

The DOE produces six-year enrollment projects each year to help schools engage in short- and long-term planning. Unexpected and significant changes in enrollment projections in the short term, something that schools affected by Red Hill fuel contamination experienced last year, are much more detrimental to school operations than slow and predictable changes in the long term, Hallett said.

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, was registrar at McKinley High School during a time when the student body was down about 16%. The school cut its French program and eliminated some teaching positions as a result of financial cuts, but because the school still has a population of over 1,600 students, the losses were manageable. It is the small and medium schools that are struggling the most with funding cuts.

BOE President Bruce Voss says the board currently has no plans to close schools and any move to do so in the future must include a strong community process. Credit: Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022 (Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2023)

The state’s weighted student formula has been mostly successful, said the BOE’s Voss. But there must be another funding mechanism to support small rural schools so they have the funds to give students the education they deserve. The DOE is requesting additional funding this year from the Legislature for the funding formula to provide additional support.

Making sure smaller schools have enough staff and a variety of classes is critical to ensuring schools are attractive to parents, Voss said. Otherwise the inscription decays being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hard decisions ahead

Adding to the enrollment problem is the fact that the state is dotted with aging school buildings and a maintenance backlog that will take years to fix. As buildings age in under-enrolled schools, the financial arguments for keeping them open are likely to become more tense.

“We have more needs than money and resources,” DOE Assistant Superintendent Curt Otaguro told lawmakers at a legislative budget briefing earlier this month, warning them that tough decisions may be needed in the future. future on where resources are allocated such as school buildings. — and the state’s population — continue to age.

But a lot can happen in five years to affect enrollment projections, contradicts Brian Hallett, deputy superintendent of the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Services. He says it’s too soon to start talking about things like school closures when the school system is still coming out of pandemic disruptions.

Hallett said he is cautiously optimistic that state and county efforts to regulate vacation rentals and address the lack of affordable housing will help mitigate enrollment declines going forward.

“There is a lot of effort to work against these projections, where they are headed, and to address the issue of migration,” Hallett said.

Making decisions today based on what could happen six years from now can also cause all kinds of problems, he said.

A decade ago, the DOE was considering closing several schools in Hawaii Kai due to low enrollment. None of those schools currently have enrollment problems, Hallett said, using the schools as an example of the challenge of making decisions based on what’s happening at any given time.

“We have to take a longer-term view of schools,” Hallett said. “Closing one of those schools at a time when it seemed appropriate would have put us in a corner and created a future problem.”

The best thing lawmakers can do about projected declines is not to overreact, Hallett said.

If and when the Hawaii BOE should again consider school closures, Voss says it’s important that there be a robust effort to engage affected communities in what they want and which school should be considered for closure. There also needs to be significant planning for how closed campuses will be used for educational or learning purposes so that they are not left vacant.

The shrinking student population also puts public education in Hawaii at something of a crossroads. Funding cuts could lead to larger class sizes, program reductions, and even school closures. But if the state maintains funding levels despite a drop in student numbers, the changes could provide an opportunity to improve the educational experience for students who stay behind.

“We have more needs than money and resources.” — DOE Assistant Superintendent Curt Otaguro

If fewer students enroll and funding doesn’t change, the per-student funding formula would increase, so theoretically some schools could have the same amount of funding even with a decrease in student numbers, Hallett said.

Fewer students without funding cuts could mean smaller classes, better art and music electives, or more individualized instruction, Jim Shon, a former state legislator and education policy expert, said in an email.

“The legislature is the driver of this non-crisis,” he said.

Dee at Stanford says the best thing school districts can do right now is to conduct a needs assessment for students as they emerge from the pandemic and engage in conversations about how best to handle cuts that may arise. The influx of federal aid funds to districts provides a unique opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive.

“Crises can also be opportunities,” Dee said. Federal funding could allow some districts to be really thoughtful and agile with how they navigate enrollment declines and create a brighter future for the students who attend their schools.

The process is more likely to be quite reactive in most districts.

“It can be difficult for school districts to engage in that kind of blue sky planning,” Dee said. “So I think what you’re most likely to see when districts come under pressure to close schools are really contentious community discussions.”

Civil Beat educational reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.