Plummeting Private School Enrollment May Increase Strains on Public Schools

What does the recent drop in California’s K-12 private school enrollment mean for the state’s public schools? Private school enrollment fell by 5.0 percent in 2008-09, the largest year-to-year decline since at least the early 1990s. This precipitous decline is likely due, at least in part, to the economic downturn, as some families opt for public instead of private schools in order to cut costs. However, last year’s decrease in private school enrollment is also part of a longer-term trend, which may reflect an endorsement of the state’s public schools. The number of private school students in California decreased in seven of the past eight years, falling by a total of more than 112,000 — a 17.3 percent decline. In contrast, more than 200,000 additional students enrolled in California public schools during the same time period — an increase of 3.3 percent.

The strains on California’s public schools have increased due to the state’s budget crisis. In July, California cut 2008-09 funding for K-12 education programs covered by the Proposition 98 guarantee by 16.6 percent compared to the funding level enacted in September of 2008. In addition to these cuts, the Legislature allowed school districts to increase class sizes while retaining most of the funding provided by the state’s K-3 class size reduction program. As a result, many public school classes are larger this year in part due to school districts reducing teaching staffs to cut costs. An increase of even a few students per classroom will add to public schools’ workload as they attempt to achieve the state’s high academic standards with fewer resources.

— Jonathan Kaplan

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