Colorado schools work to keep students from leaving — and taking money with them

Among the myriad disruptions coronavirus has brought to Colorado’s schools over the last half year, keeping students at their desks — both virtual and actual — is shaping up to be the next big hurdle for education officials.

Official enrollment numbers for the 2020-21 academic year in the state’s 178 school districts won’t be tallied until October, but district leaders are doing what they can now to accommodate families that are struggling to navigate an educational system beset by a global health crisis. Schools receive funding based on the number of students they have, whether they’re learning online or in person. When kids leave for another school or homeschooling, money leaves, too.

For this academic year, the average per-pupil allocation is projected to be $8,077.

“If you have fewer kids, you’re going to have less revenue,” said Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer for the Colorado Department of Education.

And that’s a real worry in a state where open enrollment allows families to place their children in any district in the state — a prospect made easier by the increasing embrace of remote learning, which obviates the need for long commutes or relocation. Last year, nearly 100,000 students in Colorado — or more than 10% across the state — enrolled in schools outside their home districts, according to Colorado Department of Education data.

Parents in Denver Public Schools, for example, sent 2,400 children to schools in neighboring Jefferson County and nearly 400 to Cherry Creek schools last year. Whether out-of-district migrations increase because of the pandemic is unclear, said Mark Ferrandino, DPS’s deputy superintendent of operations.

The district, with approximately 94,000 students and facing a $65 million shortfall, began the school year this week with remote learning only, an approach it announced it would maintain through at least the middle of October as the state tries to get a handle on its coronavirus cases. But Ferrandino said recently he has been getting inquiries from parents of young children about exactly when classrooms might reopen in the state’s largest school district.

“We definitely know at the younger grades, it’s tough for families,” he said. “Families are making tough decisions about how to work and look after their kids.”

Despite pressure to launch in-person learning, Ferrandino said the district will be making decisions about reopenings based “first and foremost on the health and safety of our staff and students” and not on enrollment goals.

Tracie Rainey, who heads the Colorado School Finance Project, said the next few weeks will shed much light on how parents are weighing what’s being offered to them — and whether they want to stick with their home district or go elsewhere, including to private schools.

“If parents pull kids out of the public system then it will negatively hurt the school districts’ funding – I don’t think anyone knows what the next two weeks will reflect for education,” she said. “Some believe it will all go to remote again quickly as cases will rise. Others believe they will be able to have more instruction in person.”

But Rainey said the massive projected cut to school spending in Colorado this year because of the fiscal ravages of COVID-19 will make things difficult for everyone in education.

“With the cut to state funding and the requirements for COVID and classroom capacity, districts don’t have a lot of latitude,” she said. “Given all that, I think you may still see a few things happening — moving from a district to another due to unemployment issues or moving in with other family members.”

Whereas in the last eight years state budget writers have managed to steadily whittle away Colorado’s “negative factor” — a fiscal maneuver that cuts school budgets so that the state can balance its overall ledger — that trend came to a screeching halt when the coronavirus invaded the state in March.

Now Colorado schools are looking at a projected $600 million increase in the negative factor this year, bumping up the overall school funding deficit in the state above $1 billion for the first time since 2011-12 school year.

“This year is a fairly tight budget factor anyway,” said Okes, with the Colorado Department of Education. “Any further reduction would be difficult to absorb.”

Some relief will come to districts through an accounting approach the state education department uses that adjusts per-pupil funding year to year based on a district’s average over a period of several years — a method that “softens the impact” of a sudden drop in enrollment, Okes said.

In Colorado Springs School District 11, officials are sensitive to enrollment numbers due to the fact that the district is a “declining enrollment district,” according to spokesperson Devra Ashby. The district has seen a drop from nearly 30,000 students a decade ago to fewer than 26,000 this past academic year.

“To be proactive this school year, our teachers and principals are calling families who were enrolled last year but have been ‘no shows’ so far this school year,” Ashby said. “If they aren’t getting responses from phone calls, they are making home visits.”

On the other side of the state, Mesa County Valley School District 51 instructs 22,000 students across Grand Junction. Spokeswoman Catherine Foster-Gruber said the “majority” of the district’s students have returned this year, whether attending classes in-person or online.

“We’ve seen a few families transition to homeschooling or private schools, but nothing that’s out of the ordinary or cause for concern,” she said.

What is concerning to Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is not so much what happens this fall with enrollment numbers but what happens down the road as the impacts of coronavirus come into full view.

“Colorado is notorious for underfunding our public schools, and we’re paying a high price for that stinginess,” he said. “In this moment of crisis, schools don’t have the resources they need in order to open up safely for in-person instruction or to target much-needed instructional interventions for their neediest students. The budget crisis, tied to the economic downturn, seems likely to fester… That could indeed lead to a cycle of disenrollment and disinvestment in our public schools.”

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