Baby bust’s effect on public schools

Mississippi public school enrollment is set to steadily shrink. In 2007, Mississippi had 46,455 births, about 127 per day. In 2019 the number had fallen to 36,634, just over 100 per day. Add to that the fact that Mississippi’s public school enrollment declined more than any other state’s since the pandemic began.

In the Fall of 2019 American public school enrollment stood at 50,796,445 students, as it turned out, a peak likely not to be revisited in our lifetimes. Between a national baby-bust that commenced in 2007 and a COVID-19 accelerant, peak district enrollment lies in the past, and adjustments will be necessary.

The National Center for Education Statistics projected public school enrollment trends by state for the 2021-2030 period. The future is coming fast.

Public School Enrollment Projections by State, 2022 to 2030 (Source: National Center for Education Statistics):

 Fall 2022Fall 2023Fall 2024Fall 2025Fall 2030Change from 2022-2030
  Alabama753,900756,100757,500755,600740,400-1.80%
  Alaska133,100133,400133,400133,100128,500-3.50%
  Arizona1,144,4001,149,1001,152,3001,152,4001,155,0000.90%
  Arkansas497,600498,700499,600497,500487,700-2.00%
  California6,005,3005,934,9005,854,8005,786,2005,425,900-9.60%
  Colorado883,200875,800867,100857,300817,300-7.50%
  Connecticut512,300509,100505,400500,500475,600-7.20%
  Delaware141,500141,900142,300142,100137,600-2.80%
  DC98,00098,90099,50099,30094,700-3.40%
  Florida2,814,6002,806,0002,791,0002,775,8002,704,600-3.90%
  Georgia1,738,1001,723,0001,707,2001,686,6001,606,600-7.60%
  Hawaii177,200175,000173,200170,900158,900-10.30%
  Idaho314,300315,000315,400314,700312,000-0.70%
  Illinois1,924,0001,919,6001,914,1001,897,5001,800,900-6.40%
  Indiana1,051,4001,052,1001,050,3001,045,6001,017,800-3.20%
  Iowa521,500521,700520,700518,300505,900-3.00%
  Kansas484,500480,700476,200470,300440,300-9.10%
  Kentucky665,700661,800657,500650,900626,500-5.90%
  Louisiana705,000702,100699,600694,600671,700-4.70%
  Maine173,000171,600170,300168,700161,800-6.50%
  Maryland903,100902,100900,800895,800859,700-4.80%
  Massachusetts927,200923,200920,100913,700879,900-5.10%
  Michigan1,427,6001,418,9001,409,2001,395,8001,329,900-6.80%
  Minnesota902,200908,300912,800913,100903,1000.10%
 Mississippi429,800420,800412,000401,500364,700-15.10%
  Missouri882,700873,100862,100848,500792,200-10.30%
  Montana147,400146,600145,200143,700136,800-7.20%
  Nebraska334,400334,900335,100336,100329,200-1.60%
  Nevada494,300494,000492,400489,400476,300-3.60%
  New Hampshire165,900163,200160,500157,600144,600-12.80%
  New Jersey1,393,0001,388,2001,382,3001,372,0001,307,600-6.10%
  New Mexico311,400305,200299,100292,100263,700-15.30%
  New York2,613,0002,592,7002,573,0002,547,0002,399,100-8.20%
  N. Carolina1,545,0001,545,6001,545,4001,541,5001,524,800-1.30%
  N. Dakota120,400121,700122,600123,000123,5002.60%
  Ohio1,670,3001,669,4001,666,1001,657,5001,599,400-4.20%
  Oklahoma717,300719,600719,200715,900692,900-3.40%
  Oregon584,300581,900577,800571,700538,900-7.80%
  Pennsylvania1,712,9001,710,1001,705,2001,694,8001,626,600-5.00%
  Rhode Island139,500138,400137,500136,000130,200-6.70%
  S. Carolina790,300792,100792,400789,300772,200-2.30%
  S. Dakota145,500146,700147,200147,200145,8000.20%
  Tennessee1,014,1001,018,8001,022,0001,023,3001,029,9001.60%
  Texas5,495,1005,481,2005,469,3005,442,3005,311,300-3.30%
  Utah710,700718,700724,600727,900742,9004.50%
  Vermont83,60082,50081,50080,30074,600-10.80%
  Virginia1,254,3001,243,9001,235,2001,224,0001,177,500-6.10%
  Washington1,096,9001,092,7001,086,6001,077,2001,033,500-5.80%
  West Virginia249,100243,400237,600231,000202,400-18.70%
  Wisconsin840,500835,400829,100820,200780,200-7.20%

American public-school enrollment grew for 30 years after 1990. Adjusting to the new reality won’t be easy. Mississippi faces the third-largest projected decline in enrollment. In theory, school districts would simply retire low-enrollment school facilities, consolidate underutilized schools, sell the retired facilities to people who will put them to a more productive use, etc.

But that theory is often not reality.

Districts often choose not to make reasonable decisions about underutilized and vacant space. The reason is simple: for decades the surest way to get an angry group of parents protesting at a school board meeting was to propose closing schools. People don’t like school closures and there is no requirement that they feel the least bit rational about it. Worse still, there is no requirement that school districts make brave decisions to do what is right for students: it’s easier to avoid the protest and short-change teacher salaries.

Districts that hold on to underutilized or vacant space wind up redirecting resources toward maintaining vacant facilities – resources that could be used for higher purposes, such as offering teachers better compensation, which might be needed to attract teachers to a shrinking area.

Mississippians should keep an eye on this issue. Avoiding school closures is not an option for the long run. Students, families, and teachers would be better served by not only closing low-demand schools but also in opening high-demand schools. This would give Mississippi’s families and teachers the opportunity to shape the state’s K-12 space in a set of schools that are diverse, pluralistic, and specialized to meet children’s educational needs. Whatever path is chosen, the status quo won’t be an option.