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School districts, budget cuts, and expectations of funding

The headlines paint a dire picture.

To read the news, you'd think most public schools are one dollar away from going under. But every district is different, and expectations of funding sometimes need a strong dose of reality.

For example, in Washington, much of the decline in budgets is because so many students have left the public school system. Enrollment in the Evergreen State is down more than 4%, or roughly 60,000 students. That's the equivalent of the two largest school districts in the state - combined - having zero students.

If you don't have as many customers, you can't expect to continue on as normal. It's simple math.

In Moses Lake, the math didn't work, because school district officials counted dollars multiple times. (Yet another reason why policymakers should be looking at a Public School Transparency Act.)

In Kuna, cuts are being made in part because the district counted on COVID-19 federal funding, and now that funding is running out.

Idaho is one of the few states where public school enrollment has held steady since the pandemic. While it slightly declined last year, it increased by roughly 2.5% from 2021-2023.

If this year's drop becomes a trend, policymakers will need to review options.

But we must resist the urge to spend the same amount or more on fewer students. While it's not a comfortable conversation to have, the fact remains that declining enrollment might have led to the closing of a school. That doesn't mean K-12 funding is declining, in fact, our recent study showed every one of the top 10 school districts in Idaho are spending more than $10,000 per student, per year. In Washington, the statewide average is approaching $18,000 per student.

Taxpayers are not in the business of simply funding empty seats.

Declining school enrollment and budget constraints require policymakers to fundamentally rethink their approach to education - and that can be a good thing.


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