Public school enrollment drops in WV

November 17, 2018

CHARLESTON - West Virginia’s state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine announced Thursday that public prekindergarten-12th grade enrollment dropped 4,858 students from last school year to this one, including a 544-student drop in Kanawha County.

This reduction, the largest one-year enrollment drop since the 2000-01 school year, will likely reduce statewide school funding next school year by millions of dollars if lawmakers don’t change the state school aid funding formula.

The state’s establishment of its free prekindergarten program since the 2002-03 school year might limit direct comparability with the year 2000 because the move added more grade levels to lose kids from.

Paine also said at Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting that 54,000 students, about a fifth of the statewide enrollment, missed more than 18 days last school year. Eighteen days is roughly a tenth of a school year.

Regarding the enrollment drop, Paine said Kanawha’s drop was the largest in raw numbers but represented a 2 percent drop, while Ritchie County’s drop was the largest in percentage, at about 7 percent.

A state Department of Education-provided document estimated 2,252 of the lost students were due to declining birth rates. It also said 707 more students withdrew from public school for this school year than last school year to attend private schools or to be home-schooled.

Paine estimated 2,000 of this year’s enrollment drop was due to legislation - Senate Bill 186 - that neither the education department, nor the state school board that oversees the department, vocally fought against as it wound its way through the state Legislature in 2017.

Department officials said they were neutral on the legislation. When asked about the department’s past stance, Paine said, “Don’t make a story where there’s not a story.”

SB 186 delayed the right to free prekindergarten for students without special needs. Paine called the enrollment drop from this “artificial” because he said the students will enroll in prekindergarten later.

Clayton Burch, the deputy state schools superintendent, said in a separate interview that he believes the biggest hit will be the current one. But he said some students who were delayed entering public preschool by the bill may just go right into kindergarten, which, unlike preschool, has a policy for early entrance.

West Virginia county school systems are funded largely based on enrollment. They effectively don’t receive a full year of per-pupil funding for each student who decides to skip preschool.

Regardless of whether the preschool numbers will be mostly restored next school year - and even if 2,000 students are excluded from the drop, it’s still larger than last school year’s 2,557-student reduction - county boards of education across the state will have to grapple with funding cuts caused by enrollment losses.

The state school aid funding formula uses enrollment numbers from the current school year to determine funding levels for the following school year.

West Virginia offers free prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds. The state also offers it to all 3-year-olds with special needs, including speech. Burch said another couple thousand 3-year-olds attend by qualifying through Head Start.

SB 186 meant free early education programs only had to be offered to all children who are 4 years old by July 1 of the school year in which their families planned to enroll them. Previously, those children had the right to free preschool as long as they turned 4 years old by Sept. 1 of the school year in which their families planned to enroll them.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System has shown that July and August are two of West Virginia’s top three months for births.

Burch said he had heard the change was requested because people thought “the children were young or maybe developmentally not ready and that two months would make a difference.” But he said he doesn’t think it did make a difference.

“At this age it’s about developmental age, not chronological age,” Burch said. “So you will still have a 4-year-old in some cases that developmentally is a 2-year-old, and you will still have a 4-year-old that developmentally is maybe reading. So as a teacher in a classroom, you will still have to deal with children from a 1 and 2 developmental age, to possibly a 7 or 8 developmental age.”

Burch said the department “absolutely” does support, if there’s enough money, expanding West Virginia’s free prekindergarten system to cover all 3-year-olds.

“That just is straight-up research,” Burch said. “The younger you can engage ’em.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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