Schools across Santa Clara County have seen a consistent decline in student enrollment over the past seven years. There were 21,323 fewer K-12 students enrolled last school year than in the 2015-16 school year.
The California Department of Finance (DOF) is projecting the trend of declining enrollments will continue well into the next decade statewide. They are forecasting an 11.4% decline in statewide enrollment by 2031, equating to about 703,000 fewer students than 2019-20. The forecast for Santa Clara County schools is even higher, with an expected decline in enrollment of 16.21% by 2031.
There are many reasons for the current and expected decline in student enrollment and the impacts of this decline are significant.
Lower birth rates and a general slowing of population growth from migration are key reasons for the decline.
According to data from the DOF, since 2015 the number of children born in Santa Clara County decreased by 10% with 2,422 fewer child births projected in 2020 than the number of actual births reported in 2015. In the 1950s, the birth rate in California was 25 per 1,000 people; in 2020, it was 12 per 1,000 people. This is the lowest birth rate since 1933, during the Great Depression, when the birth rate was 12.6 per 1,000 people.
Other factors contributing to the decline in the number of children in Santa Clara County schools are rising housing costs and the overall higher cost of living in Santa Clara County. Families are leaving to find a lower cost of living and more affordable housing options in other regions or even out of state.
The University of Washington calculates the income families need in order to meet cost of living expenses. They call this the self-sufficiency standard income. In 2020 in Santa Clara County, a family of four with one infant and one preschool-aged child needed to earn $144,000 annually. That is roughly $4,000 above the annual median family income in Santa Clara County. While not every family in our county fits the demographic for which this self-sufficiency standard income is calculated, it is an informative indicator of what families are experiencing.
The COVID-19 pandemic is another contributing factor to the accelerated enrollment decline. The pandemic triggered job losses, relocations, and remote work options, as well as housing instability and food insecurity.
Lower enrollment and attendance will result in less revenue to schools at the same time that one-time state and federal COVID relief aid is ending. Fewer students, less revenue and higher costs combine to create fiscal uncertainty and distress in school districts.
Deciding to close or consolidate school operations into fewer sites is incredibly difficult. The ongoing patterns of declining enrollment, critical district financial circumstances, facility conditions, increasing operational costs of underutilized facilities and other factors may leave school districts in a position where they have no other choice and just simply cannot afford to keep all of their existing sites open.
San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.