The Austin school district has lost nearly 1,200 students so far this year, its first decline in enrollment in more than a decade.
The district’s enrollment after the third week of school was down by about 1.5 percent from the same time last year, with the greatest loss – more than 1,000 – among elementary-aged children.
The last time Austin experienced a decrease in enrollment – a decline of 1.7 percent – was in 2001, at the height of an eight-month-long recession that hammered tech industries here.
This time, district officials, who were expecting an enrollment gain of 246 students, were caught off guard. At $7,400 apiece, the loss of students could result in a loss in state funding of up to $8.6 million.
“For 15 or so years, our demographer has been projecting enrollment growth in the district, even for the past year,” Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said. “The district has always been growing, (but) the rate has slowed down. Every year, the window narrows.”
School administrators point to the rising costs of living in Austin, which they say are pushing families to search for less expensive housing in neighboring communities.
Austin’s median home price is $227,600, the highest among all major cities in Texas.
Of the students who didn’t return to the Austin district in 2012-13, 52 percent left for other Central Texas districts, in particular, Del Valle, Pflugerville and Hays.
The better reputation of suburban schools that frequently post better test scores is another reason families leave.
“Less of those families that have moderate incomes can afford to buy, or buy and remodel, in Austin, so they’re having to find housing in other areas,” said Eldon Rude, principal of 360° Real Estate Analytics, a market research and consulting firm. “They can buy more house if it’s in one of those suburban areas and be near schools that are higher performing than the parts of Austin they can afford to buy in that don’t have as high performing schools.”
Another chunk of students who left, 20 percent, or 1,220, enrolled in area charter schools, district numbers show. That number was expected to increase after the school district dissolved its partnership with IDEA Public Schools. IDEA Allan became a state-authorized charter school, moved out of the district schools and into a South Austin location, and it took 555 of the district’s students with it.
An additional 27 percent of students who left the district last year departed for private schools or left the state, where the district cannot track them.
“We don’t want them to go to privates, and we don’t want them to necessarily home-school or go to charters, but the majority of our challenge here … is affordable housing, especially at the elementary grades, for younger families with younger children,” Carstarphen said.
Fewer kids in some areas
The district’s Demographic Analysis and Student Projections for 2012, by Dennis D. Harner and Associates, anticipated growth for this year and beyond. The report showed projected 2013-14 gains of between 412 students, using a low-range projection, and 1,424, using a high-range projection; the demographer’s 10-year outlook also continued to show gains.
By the end of October, district officials predict they’ll add an additional 200-300 pre-kindergarten students to their rolls. Despite that lift, however, enrollment will still be below targets.
While census data for 2013 isn’t yet available, anecdotally, demographic trends point to fewer children per household, said Brian Kelsey, an Austin economist.
“My guess is that the people moving to Austin from other states, on average, are younger and have fewer children than the typical Austin household,” Kelsey said. “Those factors are probably influencing the number of children enrolled in AISD.”
A demographic report by the city of Austin shows that while the number of families with children has increased, they form a smaller percentage of the city’s population as a whole. In 1970, Austin families with children made up 38 percent, while in 2007, the percentage shrunk to less than 26 percent.
There are, however, areas of the district that continue to swell. Despite a lack of new housing developments in North Central Austin, that area of the district has overcrowded schools; the district opened a new elementary school there this year, with another elementary school on tap for next year.
Competing for students
It is not uncommon for urban school districts to having shrinking populations or slowed growth.
Houston’s school district lost nearly 7,000 students from 2000-01 through 2011-12, when student enrollment was 201,594. Dallas has also shrunk since 2000, by about 4,500 students. In Fort Worth, the district has added 3,200 students, a 4 percent gain, since 2000.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Henry Duvall, spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools, the country’s primary coalition of large urban school systems.
Duvall said that while some urban districts throughout the country have seen decreases, others, like in Las Vegas, are on an upswing. The increase in some districts is, in part, due to the offering of specialty programs, such as math and science academies, magnet programs and college credit programs, Duvall said. Urban districts are competing, especially with charter schools, to maintain their enrollment.
“Districts have been marketing,” Duvall said. “In trying to retain students, they’re offering school-choice programs. The big city school districts are offering a variety now, more than they were before.”
Austin is no exception. District officials in recent years, as a way to retain students, also have bolstered their efforts to offer signature programs, including dual language, fine arts academies and early-college credit programs at two traditionally struggling high schools. The district also offers a tuition-based pre-kindergarten, but that program has only brought in about 120 students in 2012 and this year.
The American-Statesman explores the reasons some parents are looking for other school options, and what the district is doing to curb the trend.