Tuesday, November 07, 2006

city school district enrollment

For the most part, I think it's bad form to pick apart news stories in the media. Journalists have a rough task in that they usually need to write 20 words on a topic that deserves 200 just to make sense of.

Nonetheless, this story deserves comment. There is the story today about Pittsburgh school district enrollment declining by 1,703 students or 5.5% of total enrollment from just last year. The story covers the "what" pretty clearly, but I think gets people all confused over the "why". School enrollment declined it explains in the very first sentence of the story because "families continuing to leave the district for charter and private schools". Really? Is that the reason or does that just sound good. I am sure the reporter didn't make it up and someone said it, which in the media means its fair game to report. Yet is it true at all?

Later on in the story it tries to back up that claim with some examples of charter and private schools with increased enrollment. One example is of 18 students, another with 75. It's hard to see how any of these add up to more than a few percent of the total 1,700 student decline. Something seems to be missing. In fact, if there were 1,700 more students in any of the finite set of City charter schools, would we not have seen a stream of stories to that effect at the beginning of September when the school year started. Even a fraction of that number would have caused huge strains in a number of schools. These are not big operations by design. It does give an example of an official in Woodland Hills accounting for 142 students who came from city schools.. but that is neither a charter or private school and so would seem to dispute the initial sentence and theme of the article. In fact, wouldnt you need to move to Woodland Hills to enroll your children there?

So why did school enrollment decline? One is sheer demographics. The number of young children entering school age years is lower than those finishing or exiting. That is part and parcel with what is probably the biggest single reason which is families of school age children reclocating out of the city and into the suburbs. Let's be clear, I am talking about relocation within the region, not regional migration although that is a factor as well. How many are leaving? I can't tell you a specific number, but let's say city population overall is going down 1% a year which is a fair guess. Does that mean families and children are going down 1% a year. Probably not. The city is retaining, possibly even increasing in both students and elderly, both of whom do not have a large number of children in city schools. That means the net loss of 1% per year is likely concentrated in families with school-age children, pushing that 1% rate a fair bit. So that and demographic shifts I will bet you good money make up almost all of the enrollment decline, not shifting into charter schools which is likely a small factor in this 1700 enrollment decline. To write off the decline as possibly a charter/private school issue only confuses the issue. Doesnt someone count the number of students in city charter schools.

So I really wasnt trying to pick on this story per se, but it does get to the bigger problem. Why would families continue to leave the city in disproportionate rates. The city can't do much about the relative attractiveness of larger suburban homes. That trend is everywhere and likely to induce young families more than others. But the city is also literally pushing people out of the city by the uncompetitive tax burden placed on city residents. Only in the city are you hit with 4% combined city and school district income tax. Again, these two taxes do not really impact students and elderly so they do not have the same incentive to leave the city but if you have one of more wage earners in a household, you have an immediate 4% raise moving out of the city usually. Thus my number one criticism of both the Act 47 folks and the ICA is that they act like they have solved a big part of the cities financial problems. As long as that fiscal imbalance exists, people will continue to move out of the city and the city's finances will remain a shambles.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that most of loss of students is due to families moving out of the district. People can choose their residence and school district based upon personal preferences.
The revamping of the schools really ignored the interests of a lot of long-time city residents, and I'm not surprised to see them voting with their feet.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

This trend did not start with Mark Roosevelt. When I became the city schools reporter for the Trib in 1998, enrollment was around 39,000--which the PG notes, as I recall from reading that story. At that time, about 200 city students were enrolled in charter schools. Just to pull a number out of thin air, the number today maybe two to three times that.

I don't have children in the city schools, but my opinion was that the perception was worse than the reality. But the perception was very important in keeping young families from either moving into the city, or, for those who could afford it, sending their kids to private schools. I know people who won't even consider the city schools, no matter how much you talk up the magnets or high schools like Allderdice.

Chris is right in that taxes are killers, and most particularly the wage tax. (School property taxes in Pittsburgh are actually the lowest in the county, or used to be. Unfortunately, city property taxes are among the highest.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006 4:06:00 PM  
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Thursday, November 09, 2006 12:11:00 PM  

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