Declining Enrollments Endanger Future of Rural Schools
Rural school districts will be under serious pressure in the next few years if declining enrollment is not addressed in school funding formulas.
In one northern school district, the agricultural teacher doubles as the night custodian.
In another isolated district, students spend nearly an hour-and-a-half on the school bus to get to school.
In West Central Wisconsin, a district could not afford to run a high school and wanted to operate a kindergarten through 8th grade school and contract with other communities for high school but could not get state approval.
These are the challenges facing rural Wisconsin schools and they will only worsen in the next ten years as the state’s rural population continues to age and decline, creating a decrease in school enrollment in isolated districts, according to legislators and experts testifying at a state Senate committee hearing recently.
Rural school districts will be under serious pressure in the next few years if declining enrollment is not addressed in school funding formulas, noted Todd A. Berry, President of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance in rare testimony to the State Senate Committee on Education and Corrections on August 29.
Berry was one of a handful of experts invited by the committee to testify on the impact of state legislation on school funding.
“The thing that is clear in all of this is that declining enrollment matters,” Berry told the committee, referring to path-breaking research by the Alliance over the past 10 years that tracks population trends, state demographics, and school enrollment.
“When enrollment grows, it brings in enough revenue to help everyone in the district. When enrollment declines, it affects revenue limits,” he said of the state’s educational funding system.
“Some of the rural areas of the state have been losing population for 20 years and population projections show they are going to lose enrollment for the next 20 years,” he said.
Isolated rural districts in the north and the southwest, along the Mississippi River and in parts of Central Wisconsin, are losing people and students, and they are more affected by revenue caps than other districts, Berry said.
“Even with transportation aid, these districts have transportation costs that are 50 percent higher than other districts in the state,” he said.
“You have to have an administrator, you have to heat buildings, you have to have buildings. They are in a sense overstaffed because they’re having to offer some courses where they can’t fill the classroom,” he explained.
“On average, in these rural districts, a district of 500 kids probably has four extra teachers and is spending about $300,000 more just because of the nature of its size and not being able to get to a scale where it could efficiently staff.”
When it comes to curriculum, these rural, sparsely populated, declining enrollment districts are also challenged, Berry said.
All of the 44 districts in Wisconsin that do not offer Advanced Placement high school classes are rural. Almost all of the 20 districts with lowest ACT scores are rural.
“You’ve either got to think about technology or the state is going to have to step in and perhaps run school districts or run rural, residential high schools. There are just going to be some holes out there and it would be better to think about it now than later,” he said.
“If another couple of years go by, you are going to have districts that aren’t going to exist. Then you are going to have some hard questions. Because you are going to be transporting kids very long distances. Some of these districts are . . . bigger than half the counties in the state.”
Based on WISTAX research and talks with school district leaders from across the state, Berry said there are some potential options for the state.
“Consolidation can play a role but not everywhere,” he said, noting that districts might be able to save five to ten percent through consolidation.
In talking to school leaders he told legislators, “the word I hear even more than money is flexibility. They talk again and again about how certification and licensing is restricting their ability to adapt.”
In addition, Berry said, “a lot of their problems can be solved with technology. Some of these areas do not have adequate internet access. They certainly don’t have bandwidth. The ones that do are finding pretty clever ways of offering four foreign languages, really advanced math. It’s not their size that’s doing them in. It’s the technology.”
Berry said meeting the challenge facing these rural areas has other benefits for the state.
“It’s not only an education issue. It’s an economic development issue. These are the communities where, as one superintendent said, ‘our biggest export is our brightest kids.’ They leave. They don’t come back.”
“Technology can build the economic base of some of these rural communities, it’s also something that can bootstrap some of these declining enrollment, isolated districts,” he concluded.