Why Hawaii’s school enrollment decline is a ‘significant problem’

A decade after Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School closed due to low student enrollment, the impact the closure had on Greater Kaimuki is still being felt by longtime residents.

The 99-year-old school served as a meeting place for the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, which no longer has a regular meeting place. Annual public celebrations of Queen Liliuokalani’s birthday were held here. Local residents used the basketball courts after business hours.

“I’m still upset about it,” said Lyle Bullock, a former neighborhood committee member whose daughter was attending the school when it closed. “Not for me personally, but for the community.”

It’s been years since the state took steps to close a school, but tough decisions like the one in Kaimuki could face other communities if enrollments in public schools continue to decline.

If current projections are correct, Hawaii will have fewer students enrolled in state public schools by the 2027-28 school year than at any time since 1962.

It’s a startling data point that could have major implications for public education in a state where many smaller and rural schools are already struggling to keep programs running.

“This is a significant issue,” State Board of Education chair Bruce Voss said of the declines, adding that the BOE is not currently planning or considering any closures.

“We have a lot of work to do right now to fix the learning loss caused by the pandemic,” Voss said. “That’s our main focus now.”

But some education experts say now is the time to have tough conversations about what a shrinking student population might mean and to use federal Covid-19 aid money to better prepare for the future.

Schools across the country with declining enrollments will face very serious fiscal pressures to downsize and close too few schools, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford University professor who has studied public school enrollment changes during the pandemic.

“I think so many of us are focused on this opportune moment where a lot of states have access to these additional federal funds because it gives the states and districts at least some financial capacity to handle that,” Dee said.

Pandemic has made things worse

Enrollment in DOE schools had been declining slowly but steadily in Hawaii prior to the pandemic, driven by outflow, fewer births and the growing popularity of public charter schools. Hawaii also has one of the highest private school enrollment rates in the United States.

Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the declines.

Nationwide and in Hawaii, many parents have not enrolled their children in kindergarten, a particularly difficult age to become involved remotely. But in the second year of the pandemic, there wasn’t a big surge in enrollment among first graders, Dee said.

“It suggests to me that the enrollment losses will be permanent,” Dee said.

Enrollment in Hawaii has declined about 6.8% over the past five years and is currently projected by the DOE to decline another 5.4% through 2027-28.

“A drop of this magnitude is significant,” Dee said.

The drop in enrollment is a problem statewide — and Dee says some counties in other states are already struggling with school closures — but it’s of particular concern for small schools in Hawaii. Most of Hawaii’s state education funding is allocated using what is called a weighted student formula, a number per student that accounts for student needs such as special education.

The formula was designed so that school funding is more equitable between schools and follows the students, said Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s Office of Tax Services. This means that schools already anticipate some level of turnover each year due to changes in enrollment.

“It’s not necessarily a problem for schools that funding is cut, it’s only when it gets so big that they can’t do what they need to do,” Hallett said.

The enrollment losses are not evenly distributed across the state. Some schools, like Kahului Elementary School on Maui and Haleiwa Elementary School on Oahu, are projected to lose 20% of their students by 2027-28. A select few schools are projected to grow, including Barbers Point Elementary on Oahu, which is expected to increase enrollment by 11%.

The DOE creates six-year enrollment projects each year to help schools with short- and long-term planning. Unexpected and significant short-term changes in enrollment forecasts — something affected by last year’s Red Hill fuel spill — disrupt school operations much more than slow and predictable long-term changes, Hallett said.

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, was a registrar at McKinley High School during a time when student body numbers were declining by about 16%. The school cut back its French program and cut some teaching positions due to budget cuts, but as the school still has a population of more than 1,600 students, the losses were manageable. It’s small and medium-sized schools that are hitting the hardest with funding cuts.

The state’s weighted student formula has been mostly successful, said Voss of the BOE. But there needs to be another funding mechanism to support small rural schools so they have the resources to give students the education they deserve. The DOE is requesting additional funding from the Legislature for the funding formula this year to provide additional support.

Ensuring smaller schools have adequate staff and a range of classes is critical to ensuring schools are attractive to parents, Voss said. Otherwise, enrollment is not a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Related: ‘Wake up calls’: New parent survey shows 9% drop in enrollment at county schools

Difficult choices ahead of us

Adding to the enrollment problem is that the state is riddled with aging school buildings and a maintenance backlog that will take years to fix. As the buildings at schools with small enrollments age, the financial case for keeping them open is likely to become more weighty.

“We have more needs than money and resources,” DOE Assistant Superintendent Curt Otaguro told lawmakers at a budget meeting earlier this month, warning them that tough decisions may have to be made about where resources are allocated as school buildings — and who Population of the state – continues to age.

But a lot can happen in five years that will affect enrollment projections, counters Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Services. He says it’s too early to talk about things like school closures when the school system is still emerging from the disruptions of the pandemic.

Hallett said he’s cautiously optimistic that state and county efforts to regulate vacation rentals and address the shortage of affordable housing will help mitigate future enrollment declines.

“There’s a lot of effort going on to counter those projections, where they’re headed, and to address the migration issue,” Hallett said.

Making decisions today based on what might happen in six years can also cause all sorts of problems, he said.

A decade ago, the DOE considered closing several Hawaii Kai schools due to low enrollment. Neither of these schools currently have enrollment issues, Hallett said, citing the schools as an example of the challenge of making decisions based on what’s happening at any given time.

“We need to look at schools from a longer perspective,” Hallett said. “Closing any of these schools in the time that seemed appropriate would have cornered us and created a future problem.”

The best lawmakers can do about the projected declines is not to overreact, Hallett said.

If school closures should be reconsidered by the Hawaii BOE, Voss says it’s important that there is a strong effort to get affected communities involved in what they want and which school should be considered for a closure. There must also be extensive planning for how closed campuses are used for learning or education so that they do not remain empty.

The dwindling student population is also putting public education in Hawaii at something of a crossroads. Funding cuts could lead to larger class sizes, program cuts, and even school closures. But if the state maintains funding levels despite a drop in student enrollment, the changes could offer a chance to improve the educational experience for the remaining students.

If fewer students are enrolled and funding doesn’t change, the per-student funding formula would increase, so some schools could theoretically have the same funding even if student numbers decline, Hallett said.

Fewer students without funding cuts could mean smaller class sizes, better art and music electives, or more one-to-one tuition, Jim Shon, a former state legislator and education policy expert, said in an email.

“The legislature is the engine for this non-crisis,” he said.

Dee at Stanford says the best school districts can do right now is conduct a needs assessment of what students need most as they emerge from the pandemic and have conversations about how best to deal with any upcoming cuts . The influx of federal aid to districts presents a unique opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive.

“Crises can also be opportunities,” Dee said. The federal funding could allow some districts to be really thoughtful and nimble about how they deal with enrollment declines and create a brighter future for the students who attend their schools.

It is more likely that the process will be fairly reactive in most districts.

“School districts can be difficult to embrace this kind of blue sky planning,” Dee said. “So I think what you’re more likely to see when districts are under pressure to close schools is really contentious community discussions.”

This article was originally published by Civil Beat. Civil Beat’s educational reporting is supported by a grant from the Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.