Thursday, November 11, 2010

LAUSD’S NUMBERS KEEP ON DROPPING: Enrollment falls to lowest level in more than a decade. Fewer students means less money for teachers, staff and programs

By Connie Llanos, L.A. Daily News Staff Writer | from the contra costa times

Nov. 11, 2010 -Enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District has dipped to nearly 672,000 - the lowest level in more than a decade.

According to updated enrollment figures, 671,648 students are enrolled in the district this academic year - down about 10 percent from the district's peak in 2002.

A regional shift in demographics, caused in part by the economic downturn, has led to similar decreases in enrollment at other districts across the Southland, according to a new district report.

While the school district continues to shed students overall, charter schools are posting double-digit gains each year. Enrollment in the publicly funded, independently run schools reached nearly 70,000 students this year, up about 15 percent from last year.

Traditional, noncharter LAUSD enrollment declined 3 percent, but with the boost from charters, its overall decline was 1 percent.

Charter growth creates financial headaches for the district.

"This enrollment crisis is not necessarily about birth rate, it's about choice," said LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer.

According to LAUSD budget director Yumi Takahashi, for each of the last eight years, the district has seen a consistent decline in enrollment of about 2.5 percent - which equals an annual loss of about $100 million.

Fewer students means less money for teachers, staff and programs at LAUSD because, like all school districts, it receives funding from daily student attendance.

This year's enrollment is a far cry from the 747,000 students that crowded district schools in 2002 - when hundreds of campuses were on year-round schedules to accommodate the overflow.

Charters gaining

LAUSD spokeswoman Lydia Ramos said staffing reductions at the district have not matched the drop in students, because of a push to reduce class sizes.

Many of those class-size reductions, however, have been reversed over the last three years, and district budget projections predict more will be eliminated next year.

"Despite challenge after challenge, though, we carry on," Ramos said. "Our kids still need to have the best education possible, and day after day that is still our mission."

At the same time that LAUSD is losing students, charter schools have nabbed a larger portion of the district's student population.

Charter enrollment has grown by an average of between 8,000 and 10,000 annually over the last decade. This year, charter school enrollment grew by 15 percent or 9,292 students.

The increase means that charter schools now make up 10 percent of LAUSD's total enrollment.

"The simple answer is that parents simply want to enroll their kids in charter schools," said Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association.

"In Los Angeles we have a collection of charters that is the envy of the nation. Parents are recognizing that and enrolling in these schools in greater numbers."

Wallace said the spike in charter enrollment is part of a statewide trend. This year 115 new charter schools opened.

"That is the largest number to ever open in one state in the history of the charter movement," Wallace added.

`Unprecedented relationship'

Charter school growth does not necessarily help LAUSD's budget situation, though, because the alternative schools are funded independently of LAUSD and are not required to hire unionized district staff.

"This is an unprecedented relationship," board member Zimmer said. "We don't have a budgeting history for this, we don't have a model we can turn to because we've never done this before."

Zimmer believes the current enrollment trends create a need for LAUSD to provide parents more educational options for their children, by adding magnets or dual-language programs to local campuses.

But Zimmer said he is also very concerned by enrollment statistics that show charter schools enrolling fewer special education students than district schools.

The board member said those statistics also show charters expelling children at higher rates than their district counterparts.

"If you call yourself a public school, it is unethical to market yourself only to a high-achieving demographic," Zimmer said.

"What we are seeing in some areas is a two-tiered public education system," he added.

"So they become more incongruous, (and) the damage to the LAUSD accelerates because you have less money for the students who have the most need."

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