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Thousands Fail to Enroll in VA Public Schools

A recent survey of schools in Virginia yielded some surprising and worrisome news – enrollments are down, and that could mean a reduction in state funding.

As classes got underway around the state, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents did a survey of more than 120 members and made a disturbing discovery.

“We were facing a potential 37,000 shortfall in student enrollment that would translate to about $155 million in lost revenue if those children do not enroll,” says Ben Kiser, executive director of the association. 

He adds that  state aid to schools is based, in part, on the number of children being educated. Some are now in private schools or learning from their parents at home.

Even before the pandemic, UVA demographer Hamilton Lombard says home schooling numbers were rising.

“If you go into large urban areas like Northern Virginia, Richmond, it can be down to maybe only one or two percent, but then you can go to some rural counties like Surry, where it’s about one in seven children are home schooled.” 

The trend toward home schooling children seemed to parallel parents working from home.

“The top ten counties in Virginia with the highest telecommuting rates had home schooling rates double the state rate,” Lombard says.

And COVID has given both trends a boost.

This year, Roanoke City and County Schools each report enrollment down by about 200, and Radford fell short by 70.  Henrico County was off by more than 600 students, and in Albemarle County the drop was even more dramatic. Chief operating officer Rosalyn Schmitt fears the district could lose $2 million. 

“We typically are a growing county, but this year we actually had a decline in our enrollment – 900 less students less than we were projecting and budgeting for," she explains. "The biggest hit is in our youngest grades – particularly kindergarten.  Either those students are enrolled in private kindergartens, or parents are just waiting another year.”

She’s hoping big budget cuts won’t be necessary – that enrollment will rebound, and she notes that school districts have a lot of fixed costs.

“We still have the same number of principals and custodians and nurses – all things that are critical right now in COVID, so our costs are not going down despite our enrollment going down.”

Albemarle and many other districts are talking to state lawmakers – asking them not to cut any funds just yet, but   Ben Kiser says some superintendents are considering layoffs.

“About 85% of their expenditures are directed toward personnel, and so if the revenue loss were sustained, then would you anticipate having to adjust personnel?  And about 70% of them indicated that they would.”

And that could be another blow to Virginia’s economy, since schools are a major employer. At UVA’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Hamilton Lombard predicts some students will return to the classroom after COVID, but others will continue home schooling, and sooner or later districts will adapt.

“Public schools have tried to address this by allowing more parents who want to home school to let their kid come in to take a calculus course if parents don’t feel comfortable trying to do that part of the home schooling, so I think most school divisions in Virginia will let a child who’s home schooled privately come for some classes, and the state will reward the school division by giving them partial funding for those students being there.”

And in Roanoke County the public school system is offering what could be the best of both worlds for families who decide to ditch their daily commute – an academy for high school kids who get a free laptop for online instruction but can still take part in sports, homecoming, prom and graduation. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief