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The Newest Threat to Public Schools

Shrinking enrollment at traditional public schools is assumed to be largely the result of the growth of charter schools.  Although their proliferation is indeed a factor, there is a more fundamental reason that is rarely discussed ("The Number of Children in L.A. Is Shrinking - Which Could Be a Disaster," LAWeekly, Mar. 2).

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, serves as an example.  Between 1980 and 2000, student enrollment skyrocketed from about 500,000 to more than 700,000.  Classrooms were so overcrowded that the district moved to year-round operation, bused students to less crowded schools, hired hundreds of teachers, and erected hundreds of bungalows on playgrounds. I saw that when I was teaching in the district. The subsequent conversion of the famed Ambassador Hotel into the Robert Kennedy School at a cost of $578 million was a symbol of the need for space, becoming the most expensive public school in the nation.

At its peak in 2004, student enrollment stood at just under 750,000.  But then something happened that had little to do with the introduction of charter schools.  Fewer children were being born, and many parents who decided to have children decided to leave Los Angeles because of the extravagant cost of living. For example, a modest one-bedroom apartment on the coveted West Side now rents for $1,800 a month.  In adjacent Santa Monica, which is not part of the LAUSD, similar apartments rent for $2,000.

Because school districts in California receive money from the state based on a formula that depends in part on enrollment, fewer students mean less money.  From a peak of just under 750,000, enrollment in the LAUSD is now about 514,000.

The declining birth rate is not peculiar to California.  It is happening in every state in the country.  The difference is the rate at which the decline is occuring.  I've seen the change in Los Angeles because I've lived for 46 years in the same house that is located near several elementary, middle and high schools in the LAUSD. 

More than 100,000 students - about one in six of all LAUSD students - attend independent charter schools, which account for nearly half of the district's enrollment loss. But the total number of students served by both traditional public schools and charter schools has also dropped.  That's an important point overlooked in the discussion about the growth of charter schools, which is assumed to be overwhelmingly the result of the poor reputation of traditional public schools.

If what is happening in Los Angeles is also happening across the country, albeit at different rates, then the debate needs to be redefined to include demographic changes. Failure to do so provides a distorted picture of the educational landscape.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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