A case study in school performance, enrollment

A few months ago, my local newspaper ran a story on a local school district that is struggling with enrollment and budgets. This is a familiar problem in maybe half of Indiana’s school districts. After all, 54 of 92 Hoosier counties saw population declines last year, so shrinking school enrollment is not merely common but ubiquitous across much of the state.

I empathize with the sense of melancholy that the potential closing of a much loved institution brings. Somerset Elementary, where I went to school, no longer exists. Changing demographic, economic and fiscal conditions ensure a world of change.

Even when change is for the better, we often lament it. Hopefully we can approach these changes with a soft heart, but also with a hard head. However, the story of this school district is not one of hard-headed reflection. Let me explain.

School districts across the state are shrinking, which is caused by a number of factors, including population decline, options for students to transfer across district boundaries, and (to a far lesser degree) access to charter school and private school vouchers.

Importantly, all of these issues are primarily about school quality. While there are many reasons why people change schools, families overwhelming locate in places with better schools and move their children out of poorly performing schools into those that do better. Sometimes they choose unwisely, but the vast majority do not. There is stunning correlation between school performance and enrollment changes.

The truth is good schools in Indiana are busting at the seams, and those below average have excess space. It is really just about that simple. Households are voting with their feet, and places with underperforming schools are losing students. And, it is worth noting, enrollment in private schools declined last year, while public schools overall saw enrollment growth.

Public schools remain the overwhelming choice for families in Indiana. But if a local school is performing poorly, rest assured its enrollment is not growing, either. And that gets us back to the small school district in question.

In order to close a budget deficit and turn around enrollment declines, this little district is trying to lure foreign students to its schools. These students will have to pay tuition, roughly $30,000 per year, to attend the schools. The idea of course, is that foreigners will want this exposure to an American school system to better prepare their children for admissions to an American university. This notion demonstrates an extraordinary lack of self-awareness.

This district has both test scores and growth model scores dramatically below the state average, meaning that it is performing below the Indiana state average and is getting relatively worse. Thus, this school district is below average in a state that boasts no better than average school performance, in the nation that sits dead last among developed nations in K-12 school performance.

The difficult but hard-headed truth is that no foreigner with $30,000 to spend on education could likely do worse than heading to this school district. To put this in context, less than 10 percent of this school’s most recent class went to a traditional four-year college, and this year’s freshman register at nearby Ball State lists no students from that small school. Ball State recruits heavily from China.

The reality is that the enrollment declines in this school are caused by poor educational outcomes in the first place. It is probably too late to turn around this school district, but the lesson is there for the rest of us.

The road to successful and faster growing communities does not lie in gimmicks but in well-executed and faithfully executed fundamentals of local government. The most important of these is schools.