RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
October is the month when schools in many states hold their official count days. That's when they tally the number of students in every school, and that number determines the amount of money that districts will receive. NPR has found significant enrollment drops in districts across 20 different states this fall. And the consequences could be serious, both for students and school budgets.
NPR's Anya Kamenetz worked on this story, and she's joining us now. Anya, good morning. What did you find?
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. So I should say final national numbers will not be out till the spring. So what NPR did was collect fall enrollment numbers from several dozen districts across the country. And in 84% of those, were - there were enrollment drops, which were out of line for previous years, generally concentrated in elementary school with a 16% average drop in kindergarten enrollment.
MARTIN: Hmm. So why is this happening, Anya? Why is enrollment dropping?
KAMENETZ: You know, so many families - and educators, by the way - feel like online learning just isn't working so well for young children. And conversely, there are also parents who have told me they're just hesitant about having young kids' first experience of school be masked up and socially distanced if it's in person. I should also point out that in more than half of states, kindergarten in particular is not compulsory, so you can kind of sit out the year.
MARTIN: So what's the effect of that?
KAMENETZ: You know, it's likely to multiply existing inequities, right? So kids with a houseful of books, a stay-at-home parent to homeschool them, they're probably going to be fine. They might even be ahead of the game. And there are many places where private schools and child cares are open full time, in session even where public schools are not. On the other hand, there are children who may be home with an elderly relative, a sibling, watching YouTube. And so this is going to magnify kind of existing gaps.
MARTIN: What about the effect on actual school districts that are dealing with this lower enrollment?
KAMENETZ: So here's the irony I discovered, Rachel, is that the affluent public schools depend on local property taxes. And that is not really dependent, in turn, on enrollment. It's the districts that serve the more disadvantaged children that are more dependent on state funds, and that means a big threat to the budget. And one of the places we're really seeing this is Florida, home to some of the biggest districts in the country. They've dropped thousands of students. And Jessica Bakeman of member station WLRN in Miami reported on how this is all playing out.
JESSICA BAKEMAN, BYLINE: When Miami-Dade County Public Schools shifted abruptly to online learning in the spring, Chase Simmering's two daughters really struggled with all that screen time.
CHASE SIMMERING: They were zombies by the end of seven hours in front of the computer.
ISLA: Oh, yeah. That was really hard. It made my eyes hurt.
SIMMERING: (Laughter) Yeah.
BAKEMAN: Isla is 7 and in second grade. This school year, Simmering is homeschooling Ayla and her older sister, Paloma. They're using a curriculum with almost no work on the computer. It's mostly reading, writing and hands-on projects.
SIMMERING: That's what we miss the most about a classroom.
BAKEMAN: The girls are among more than 16,000 students who have left Miami-Dade's traditional public schools from last school year to now. That's about 6% of the district's total enrollment last year. And just north in Broward County, the loss is more than 9,000 students. The stakes are high.
Back in July, on the same day President Trump demanded in a tweet that schools open in the fall, the Florida Department of Education offered school districts the following deal - reopen and get funded based on the much higher enrollment levels from before the pandemic, or don't and get funded based on the actual number of students. South Florida districts didn't have to open right away because of the surge in COVID-19 cases that hit the region over the summer. But by late September, the state's patience had run out. Opening too late could have cost Miami-Dade and Broward 70 or $80 million each, which left school board members in a very tough spot.
PERLA TABARES HANTMAN: I cannot even think that I would be able to support something that could cut funding for our schools, which we so desperately need.
BAKEMAN: Perla Tabares Hantman is chair of the Miami-Dade School Board.
HANTMAN: There would be no way that I could sleep well at night.
BAKEMAN: Initially, the Miami-Dade and Broward school boards decided it would be safe to open for students who want in-person learning in mid-October. But under pressure from the state, both agreed to open last week instead. Teachers unions have called the state education commissioner a bully and argued board members were putting a price on teachers' and students' lives.
Karla Hernandez-Mats is president of the United Teachers of Dade.
KARLA HERNANDEZ-MATS: The fact that our board would allow our children to be at the risk over political agendas is alarming.
BAKEMAN: School board members in Broward County called the state's threat to cut funding if schools didn't open in early October ungodly and heartless. Broward school board member Patricia Good.
PATRICIA GOOD: This is extortion. There's no two ways about it.
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RICHARD CORCORAN: Parental choice works.
BAKEMAN: Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has argued school closures hurt students with disabilities and those who were already at a disadvantage before the pandemic. This was during a roundtable discussion in Tallahassee in late August. It was in person, indoors, and he wasn't wearing a mask.
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CORCORAN: And we know that we can provide that education, whether it's face-to-face or whether it's distance learning. And we can do it in a safe manner.
BAKEMAN: The state's promise to fund schools based on pre-COVID enrollment applies to this first head count but doesn't extend through the next one in February.
For NPR News, I'm Jessica Bakeman.
MARTIN: Again, that was Jessica Bakeman reporting from Miami. Anya Kamenetz from our education team is still with us.
So Anya, we just heard about that tension between enrollment and funding. How is that likely to play out across the country moving forward?
KAMENETZ: I mean, probably in a number of different ways - I mean, we're certainly going to continue to see enrollment potentially fluctuate. Some virtual districts are going to open up in person. Some that are in person might have to close if there's another wave of the virus, so families might change their minds. And, you know, the key question here is, what are states and the federal government going to do, right? Falling head count doesn't necessarily have to decimate these budgets. States have the choice to pass emergency funding in the spring and hold - hold districts harmless is what it's called. And/or the federal government, you know, could pass more education aid for schools, which they've done only a little bit of. So, you know, the concern, though, is that the - if it goes the other way, there could be a cascading effect where parents opt out, schools lose funding and schools, in turn, become less attractive to those parents.
MARTIN: NPR's Anya Kamenetz from our education desk.
Anya, thank you.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel.
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