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Report: In Wisconsin, Enrollment Drop Threatens School Funding, Opportunity

Wisconsin's rural school districts are facing declining enrollment and increased child poverty, which may lead to a decline in funding and fewer educational opportunities, according to a new report. 

Sarah Kemp, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Applied Population Laboratory analyzed enrollment trends, school costs, and poverty for the report, which found that while enrollment has increased in 65 percent of urban districts and 53 percent of suburban districts, only 26.5 percent of rural school districts saw an increase in enrollment. Seventy-three percent of rural districts saw enrollment decline, which means state funding that is tied to enrollment could also decrease. 

At the same time, rural school districts have seen the greatest increase in costs per pupil than districts in other locales. Nearly 78 percent of rural school districts saw per-pupil costs rise, compared to about 53 percent of urban districts. Researchers said that part of the per-pupil cost increase is due to student enrollment changes.

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"Rural school leaders know this equation all too well," Kemp wrote in the report. "If a district has less students, the cost of services such as transportation and food service doesn't necessarily decrease at the same rate."

Kemp noted that a drop in rural births suggests that rural school enrollment will continue to decline, especially at elementary schools. 

Nearly 42 percent of school districts in Wisconsin are small and rural, and those districts serve about 23 percent of the state's students.

Rural schools in Wisconsin have faced extensive cuts as the state has invested more in a school voucher program and has also decreased aids to public schools. As of 2015, the state has reduced the amount of money it spends on each student by more than $1,000 since 2008, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That is the second largest drop in per-pupil funding of any state.

A recent story by Milwaukee Public Radio found that many public school advocates in the state are concerned that schools will lose too much money as students leave to participate in the voucher program. Kim Kaukl, executive director of Wisconsin's Rural School Alliance, told Milwaukee Public Radio that if rural districts lose students to the voucher program, it could have big implications for the opportunities in rural schools.

"An advanced placement class may only have three of four kids. Well, that's going to be pretty hard to keep offering a program like that if you've only got three or four students," Kaukl said.

To mitigate the effects of budget shortages, rural schools across Wisconsin have reported sharing teachers and increasing distance learning opportunities to offer elective classes like Spanish, and required classes like social studies. In her report, Kemp noted that many rural schools have cut support staff or delayed facility improvements. Some rural Wisconsin schools have also been forced to close.

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