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Our View: Community has big stake in school enrollment drop

September 9, 2018

Is the long, ongoing decline in Lake Havasu City’s public school enrollment a close-up view of a national trend in rural schools? Is it the result of competition, mostly from charter schools? Or how about slowing population growth?

Sure. Yes to all, and none of the issues looks to be going away soon.

Enrollment decline in rural schools around the country has sparked discussion and debate for the past few years because some see the decline as symptomatic of the economic problems of rural areas generally.

Whether the general statement is true or not, and whether in fact Lake Havasu City is really a rural area (it’s within a metropolitan statistical area), the economic contention has a lot of weight here. Public school enrollment began declining a decade ago with the Great Recession. Jobs went away. Workers and families went with them.

Jobs came back, but the students didn’t return to public schools. Lake Havasu Unified School District has lost more than a thousand students since then. This year, fewer students started school in the district than in the last decade.

The consequences are both immediate and long term.

First off, the loss of a thousand students means several million dollars in lost state revenue to the schools. Local taxpayers help make up that difference with a budget override and a bond for capital items. Still, the loss is very real and, since it’s common to many districts in the state, non-metropolitan state lawmakers need to assure that rising education expenditures don’t just benefit the large cities.

The lost revenue makes it more difficult for the local schools to compete against charter and private schools to retain students. Public schools are required to offer specific programs, leaving less for such things as magnet schools, specialty programs, music and sports that can be shopped a la carte at some charter schools.

This competition is likely to grow as Arizona’s still-small voucher program expands.

Long term, enrollment declines suggest there will be fewer future educated and skilled adults who can choose to stay and prosper in Lake Havasu City. That’s a huge issue and one that is partially addressed by the award-winning economic development plan, Vision 20/20.

That plan is good, but it can’t even pretend to build an economic infrastructure that anticipates changes in the decades ahead.

Charter schools and private schools are great for what they offer and for pressuring public schools to perform better.

Public schools, though, are a big bellwether of a community’s future economic health. It will take continued attention and support to assure local public schools have resources and other support to remain the primary path to an excellent future.

— Today’s News-Herald

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