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Enrollment fell faster than expected at San Diego Unified, data shows

The San Diego Unified School District is losing students at a faster pace than school leaders expected, which might mean financial trouble in the future, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. 

Enrollment for the current school year is about 95,000 students — about 4,000 fewer than district leaders had projected, according to the district’s latest financial report submitted to the county.

School leaders worry about declining enrollment because California public schools are funded based on how many students show up to class. Both enrollment and attendance totals at many districts have significantly declined during the pandemic.

The state has temporarily “held districts harmless” by letting them use pre-Covid enrollment and attendance numbers as a basis for funding. But that policy is slated to end next school year, and many are expecting a serious financial hit.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘interesting,’ but it’s going to be a tough year,” said Deputy County Superintendent Mike Simonson, as the Union Tribune reported. 

Even before the pandemic, San Diego Unified’s enrollment had been steadily declining by about 1,000 students a year, or roughly 1%. Until 2015, that decline was largely chalked up to charter schools. Then, from 2015 to 2019, both San Diego Unified and the charters began to lose students, suggesting that families were leaving San Diego entirely, most likely due to a lack of affordable housing, school leaders said.

Next came the pandemic. In the fall of 2020, San Diego Unified lost 4,300 students, or about 4%, dipping below 100,000 for the first time in recent memory.

California has not yet released statewide enrollment numbers for this school year, but from fall 2019 to 2020 enrollment dropped 2.6%, compared with a 0.4% decrease the year before. 

To soften the financial blow, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed allowing schools to calculate their funding based on the average of daily attendance rates from the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 school years. Some legislators have also proposed changing the way schools are funded entirely, so it will be based on enrollment, rather than attendance.