150K students missing, districts scramble to keep cash

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Friday, December 18, 2020
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Texas public school districts at risk of losing more than $872 million in state funding due to low COVID-era enrollment. 13 Investigates how each district could be hit.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When school started this fall, Ana Troya got a list of 105 Alief Independent School District students who hadn't showed up to Bush Elementary School.

She spent day after day driving around town trying to track down those students, each one of them worth about $5,500 in state funding for the district.

"We found a lot had moved and we assume it's because they either couldn't pay rent or they [found] job opportunities elsewhere," said Troya, a student support specialist at Communities In Schools. "From the families we did get to see, they were struggling financially."

Most of Troya's visits were met with empty apartments. She was only able to find about 25% of the students, but she's not alone in the effort to get missing students back in the classroom.

Statewide, a 13 Investigates analysis found 2.9% of the state's 5.5 million students are no longer enrolled in public schools. Those unenrolled students aren't just losing valuable time learning, but also will cost districts $5,500 in state funding per student if current guidelines don't change by the end of the year.

"I'm fearful on the financial side that the staffing decisions we may have to make as a result of the budget issues, as a result of the low enrollment, is going to impact and impede our ability to help [students]," Alief ISD Superintendent HD Chambers said.

Our analysis of 1,012 public school districts across the state shows 75% of them saw a decrease in enrollment during the 2020-21 year compared to 2019-20.

Statewide, there are nearly 159,000 fewer students enrolled in Texas public schools for the 2020-21 school year, according to our analysis of state enrollment data. Since Texas state funding of public schools is based on enrollment, districts are at risk of losing more than $872 million for the 2021-22 school year.

Under current guidelines, the TEA has a "hold harmless" period where district funding won't be impacted by low attendance. They're allowed to use their previous attendance rate for planning purposes, but that grace period ends on Dec. 31 and districts facing deep cuts are worried.

The TEA declined an interview to discuss state funding.

INTERACTIVE: What is enrollment like at your school? Use the map below to search for enrollment numbers at every public school district and how much funding those districts could lose.

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At Alief ISD, where enrollment is down nearly 3,000 students, Chambers said about 90% of most district's budgets typically go toward staffing. The district is at risk of losing $35 to $40 million in funding, which Chambers said would mean fewer resources for unengaged students who need it the most.

"We don't have enough in our budget to trim away to make up the difference that the state may impose upon us because of this enrollment decline," Chambers told 13 Investigates. "The only place I have to meet that new revenue forecast would be in staff."

Houston ISD, the state's largest district, stands to lose the most money; between $80 and $90 million.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said he expects lawmakers will discuss school funding at length when the 87th Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 12, 2021, but districts tell us they need answers soon.

"The whole basis for the education system effectively is average daily attendance and the fact that we're actually trying to make sure that the kids are actually in school," Bettencourt said. "It's going to be a complicated problem because you just can't hold harmless forever. You've got to be able to focus back on where the kids, why are they not in school and how do we get them in school?"

Whether it's through the end of the next semester or just through January, State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, said he believes districts will get another extension to help them find students before facing funding cuts.

"We're going to be coming out and saying, 'Look, don't do anything foolish. We don't want you laying off teachers. We don't want you to get rid of them. We really want you to find these kids. That is our focus. I want you to find those kids,'" Huberty said.

'Where are they?'

With 5.3 million children currently attending Texas public schools, enrollment is the lowest it has been in five years. It's also the first time in more than a decade that enrollment has declined from the previous year.

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Combined enrollment at Texas' 1,012 public and consolidated school districts and 188 charter schools, enrollment is down by 158,645 students this year compared to the 2019-20 school year.

13 Investigates analyzed enrollment data for more 8,817 school campuses across the state and found the biggest loss is among younger learners. Enrollment at elementary schools is down nearly 6% from the previous school year, meanwhile at the high school level there are more students enrolled this year.

About 95% of Texas' total enrollment loss is at elementary school campuses, our analysis found.

Chambers said at Alief ISD, the biggest loss is among pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students where there's more students missing than enrolled. He said there are only 1,500 students in those two grades who are enrolled this year -- 1,800 fewer than last year.

Chambers said he's hopeful enrollment will pick up if pre-k and kindergarten students are just taking a gap year since those grades are not mandatory in Texas. Still, he's concerned the learning loss they suffer will take years to make up.

A child will only be in those developmental stages once and it's critical that they're in an environment that lets them learn literacy, numbers, social interactions and even decision-making before the window of opportunity closes, he said.

"The money and the enrollment, that's important, but what's critical is the human brain of a two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-year-old, in its developmental stages is like a sponge," Chambers said. "This is when they're learning. This is when that little four-year-old brain is learning language. They're learning all of these things that they're just observing."

Last legislative session, lawmakers passed a law that provided more early education funding to districts who offer full-day pre-kindergarten for four-year-old students in an attempt to improve student literacy.

Huberty said despite fewer pre-k students enrolled this year, that additional funding districts received should go toward finding and engaging the missing students.

"Many of these people need to have a job and they need to be working. There's a lot of single parents that are out there that are struggling through this process right now and so we need to use some of those resources," he said. "I've even suggested to the districts ... maybe you're reallocating those resources into school counselors and things of that nature and a remediation team and a taskforce of teams that's going to find these kids and there's districts that have done that."

For all students who don't enroll at all this year, there needs to be a plan of what to do when they enroll in the future, said Duncan Klussmann, a former Texas public school superintendent who now teaches at the University of Houston.

"You can't give them credit for a year they totally missed, so do they not progress to the next grade level or do they remain in the grade level they would have been in this year to make sure that they get those skills," he said. "We're going to continue to have to really work to find those students and find out exactly where are they, why are they not in the system today."

13 Investigates looked at schools with the most and least unenrolled students and found campuses with worse unenrollment rates were also campuses that are more economically disadvantaged and could need more resources - not less - to make up the learning loss.

Huberty said the state needs to come up with better solutions to make sure students in low socioeconomic districts have additional support. He said state leaders are currently gather data to help with upcoming funding decisions.

"We have the opportunity to continue to do what we did, which is to give them the money in this first semester to make sure that they had the resources," Huberty said. "In all the decisions that have been made over the pandemic and everything else we as legislators, haven't been there. We're going to be there and I want to be able to have us have the ability to weigh in."

13k unenrolled HISD students

At Cleveland ISD, where enrollment is actually up 18% this year, Superintendent Chris Trotter said the students are moving to his district from neighboring areas, including Spring, Aldine, Houston, Alief and Pasadena. Still, the 60 new students enrolled in the district every week doesn't compare to the combined 22,000 students who unenrolled from those five neighboring districts.

"I'm probably taking a small sliver of them," Trotter said. "We are getting a small portion of what has been leaving those school districts."

Trotter said the district did unenroll 120 students this year. And even though the new students into the district have made up for that loss -- and then some -- he still had "care team" employees track down where every unenrolled student went, whether it was switching to homeschool or private schools or even international students who returned to their home countries.

"None are missing. We can account for them. It may not be where we want them - and that's in our classrooms - but we respect the decisions each family made," Trotter said.

At Houston ISD, 13,002 students unenrolled this year, but where those children went is unclear. About 85% of the missing students are in elementary school.

13 Investigates asked for an interview with Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan or any employee who could speak about the district's efforts to find missing students and the potential funding loss if they are not found. The district declined our request.

In a statement last week, the district told us: "HISD faces an $80-90 million deficit based on an enrollment decline of approximately 10,000 students. The district continuously evaluates its budget. In doing so, students and staff are always at the forefront of any funding decisions. Since the start of the school year, district- and campus-level efforts to re-enroll HISD students have resulted in at least 6,795 students returning to HISD. Recovery efforts continue at the campus level."

The statement undercuts the enrollment loss by 30 percent, based on the latest state and district data.

"We've been discussing for several months now that enrollment is down in the district," Lathan said during a school board meeting on Dec. 10. "We initially projected 207,000 students for the school year and we are at 197,059 students."

INTERACTIVE: Houston ISD enrollment is down 13,000 students. Explore the map below to see how your child's campus is doing. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

Despite projecting a loss of only 3,061 students, HISD reported to the state that it's 2019-20 school year enrollment was 210,061. That means, with only 197,059 students as of Nov. 2, enrollment is actually down by 13,002 students.

After questions from trustees at last week's meeting Lathan provided few specifics on how the $80-$90 million deficit will impact the schools' budget, saying it's an issue the district will have to deal with next school year as they dip into reserve funds in the meantime.

"It's not that we have 80 or 90 million dollars of wiggle room in our budget that we weren't spending on other things," HISD Board President Sue Deigaard asked Lathan.

"You are right," Lathan said. "We do not."

When board members asked for more details on who or what programs would be impacted by potential budget cuts next school year, Lathan said the discussions were expected to begin on Dec. 14.

Despite districts with lower enrollment worried about how funding will be negatively impacted, about 25% of Texas public school districts could see more money due to an increase in students this year.

In any given month, Cleveland ISD said it sees between 150 and 170 new students. But the superintendent said the growth comes with its own challenges.

"We are the anomaly of Texas," Trotter said. "Cleveland ISD is growing and we are needing assistance from the State Legislature for a hyper-sonic growth district."

The growth has been so fast that one of their elementary schools opened in July with 10 portable classrooms to prevent overcrowding. The building opened with 800 students, and is now full with more than 1,100 students.

"We hired over 84 teachers last year that were new to the district due to the growth and we will continue to keep our class size at a moderate level," Trotter said. "Proper planning has made us be very fortunate with our growth right now."

Even though the challenges Cleveland ISD face are different than other districts who lost thousands of students this year, he said he does hope the "hold harmless" grace period that is slated to end this year will be extended for another nine weeks.

"Let us find some of those kids because children tend to enroll in schools at opportunities of the calendar break. So January, we're going to find a few more throughout the state, spring break we're going to find a few more and as we come back next year, we're going to find even more because deep down parents want their children educated by professionals in the classroom," Trotter said.

'Shock to the system'

In the decade he's been at the district, Chambers said the enrollment typically fluctuates between a 2% increase and a 1% loss. The 6% loss of students this year "is a shock to the system."

Looking forward to next year, Chambers said the district is already talking about how to handle the possibility that a third of returning students went to school in person, another third learned virtually and remaining students weren't in school at all.

He said districts will have to re-think how they're educating children, especially those who weren't in school.

"Do I have two teachers teaching half? Do I keep one group back and move the other one forward? Do I individualize it and let each student who wasn't in school, who's demonstrated they're ready to move on, let them move on? All these kinds of questions - they're forcing us to reinvent how we're going to monitor students progressing," Chambers said.

Klussmann said leaders at the state and federal level will need to do a better job of addressing how an entire generation of students have been impacted by the pandemic, specifically as it relates to learning loss and social and emotional wellbeing.

He said a standardized assessment is one tool that can help understand what students have lost. But, he also said there needs to be a plan to address the students who have fallen behind. He thinks that decision should fall on the state and federal government, not individual districts.

"One thing we have to explore is, do we look at mastery of content, mastery of skills, first grading itself," Klussmann said. "Mastery of skills is 'Do I understand two plus two equals four?' Grading involves so many other factors [like] 'Did I follow the directions? Did I turn it in on time?"

The development of a vaccine that started to be administered to health workers in Texas this week could mean a sense of normalcy is closer. But, in the meantime, Klussman said the loss of millions of dollars across Texas schools will impact day-to-day operations and if the enrollment doesn't increase it could have lasting effects.

"The state can't sustain that though over time if students have truly been lost from the system. I think all districts right now are very nervous about the next legislative session and what's going to happen with the funding for public schools, with the situation, the economic situation has been created by the pandemic."

When classes start back up after the winter break, districts will still have more than 150,000 students to find.

"It's scary to me," Chambers said. "I'm extremely worried about the next three to five years and our education system and what this - what's going on right now - is going to do to it."

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