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DATA: Maine School Enrollment Dips By About 4% Amid Pandemic Uncertainties

Rick Bowmer
Associated Press file
Cimmie Hunter, left, and Cadence Ludlow, both 6th graders, arrive at Liberty Elementary School during the first day of class Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Murray, Utah.

About 8,000 fewer students are enrolled in Maine’s public schools this fall — a drop of about 4% from last year. That’s according to data from the Maine Department of Education.

The drop matches trends from other states, which have also reported enrollment declines as more families have opted for homeschooling or private schools during the pandemic. And it could have an impact on school funding going forward.

Maine Public Radio reporter Robbie Feinberg spoke with host Jennifer Mitchell about the data.

Mitchell: So first, can you just walk us through this new enrollment data?

Feinberg: Every year, at the beginning of October, the state Department of Education asks school districts to report their enrollment so far in the school year. Earlier this week, we received the numbers for this fall — and they don’t paint a positive picture. School enrollment, in general, has been falling in Maine over the past decade or so. But this fall, the number of publicly funded students dropped by nearly 8,000. That’s roughly a 4.5% drop from last year. That’s actually similar to the numbers we’re seeing in other states, and it is quite substantial.

Do we know what’s causing this drop, and why fewer students are in public schools this year?

Well, obviously the pandemic is hanging over all of this, and school officials say it’s likely to be the major cause of the decline. We’ve heard about big rises in homeschooling because so many families have been unsatisfied with remote or hybrid learning.

And based on the latest data, what we’re largely seeing are far fewer young students entering public schools. Kindergarten enrollment dropped by more than 12% this fall compared to last year. And Pre-K enrollment is down by close to a quarter. On the other hand, high school numbers have barely changed compared to last year.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, says that largely lines up with what he’s hearing — parents keeping their preschoolers home this fall because of potential uncertainty around remote or hybrid schooling, or just safety concerns because of the virus.

‘We’re certainly hoping that we would see a rebound, come next year. Or come a time when the vaccine, perhaps, has a strong enough impact, that people feel like it’s safe to be in these situations again,’ Bailey says.

And Bailey also notes that the state has released data suggesting that schools have largely been a safe to place to be this fall – and that rates of transmission are lower in school buildings than the community as a whole.

What do all of these trends mean going forward? How will this affect schools?

Well, the biggest concern is likely to be around school funding. School officials say that fewer students could potentially mean less money from the state. Grace Leavitt, the president of the Maine Education Association, representing teachers’ unions, says that’s really worrisome, as local budgets are already stretched thin because of the pandemic. She says that’s one reason that she’s pushing for more federal funding for schools, as she says students need more support right now — not less.

‘Additional time for them to have, perhaps, remediation. But also supports for emotional and social needs going forward. And to address the inequities that really have been made so visible to everyone. We need to be doing more,’ Leavitt says.

And so what are we hearing from the state on this? Have they talked about how this could impact school funding?

I reached out to the Department of Education earlier this week. A spokesperson sent me an emailed statement saying that the impact of school enrollment on funding for next year is ‘incredibly nuanced’ and can’t be easily determined.

The agency says that it’s school finance team is currently running scenarios to ‘determine possible projections’ and their implications, and those will be considered by Maine’s Board of Education in January. The state says, ‘any conjecture or predictions on state subsidy at this time would be premature.’

‘At this time our school finance team is running scenarios to determine possible projections and implications, which will be initially considered by the State Board of Education in late January, as is protocol,’ wrote DOE spokesperson Kelli Deveaux in an email. ‘Any conjecture or predictions on state subsidy at this time would be premature.’

This interview has been edited for clarity. For disclosure, most of Maine Public’s news staff is represented by the Maine Education Association.