News Analysis: Public School Enrollment Is At Its Lowest In Decades

Area schools were flooded with students this week as the 2019-20 school year opened across the state.

Of course, those area schools weren’t as full of students as they used to be.

According to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, pupil enrollment will be at its lowest level in at least 30 years — continuing a long-term decline. Including charter schools and pre-kindergarten programs, New York public school enrollment in 2018-19 was estimated at 2,578,135, down 30,338 pupils from 2017-18 and at its lowest level since the 1990-91 count of 2,540,944, according to the State Education Department. The latest U.S. Census data, which show a continued decline in New York’s statewide population of school-age children in 2018, points to continuing enrollment decreases in years ahead, the Empire Center noted earlier this week.

A 10-year comparison in Chautauqua County public school enrollment shows that all but one school — Dunkirk — has seen a decline in enrollment over the past decades. Clymer, which has lost two students over 10 years; Randolph, which has lost 40 students over the past 10 years; and Silver Creek, which has lost 65 students over the past 10 years, are the only districts that have lost fewer than 100 students over the past decade.

New York public school enrollment reached an all-time high of 3.5 million in 1970-71, then declined by one million in the post-baby boom era of the 1970s and ’80s. After rebounding through the 1990s, enrollment partially recovered to its most recent peak of nearly 2.9 million in 1999-2000. However, it has dropped every year since, by an annual average of 0.5%, for a total decrease of nearly 280,000 in the last 19 years.

The Empire Center analysis shows that, generally, school enrollments have been shrinking fastest in upstate rural counties, with increases most common downstate. Only 100 of the state’s nearly 700 districts have experienced net enrollment growth since 2008-09. Pockets of growth tend to be concentrated at socio-economic extremes, ranging from wealthy districts in lower Westchester, to struggling upstate cities such as Albany and Syracuse, and poorer inner suburbs such as Roosevelt in Nassau County.


School budgets in Chautauqua County have grown from $372,564,698 in 2008-09 to $447,675,882 in 2009-10, an increase of $75,111,184 (20.16%). Who is paying the lion’s share of that additional $75,111,184, particularly in light of the county’s decreasing enrollment? The county has lost a total of 2,689 students from 2008-09 to 2018-19. During that same time, state aid to county school districts has increased $51,380,937 (21.89%) over the past 10 years while local school districts’ tax levies have increased a total of $17,864,026 (15.33%).

On a per-pupil basis, only Bemus Point ($620.61), Clymer ($421.82) and Fredonia ($310.81) have paid more of the increased costs with local tax dollars than the state has paid with state aid. The rest of the school districts in The Post-Journal’s coverage area have relied more on state aid than local tax dollars. For a complete breakdown, see chart on Page A3.

The cost shift is largely due to the state’s 2% tax cap, according to a March report by the Empire Center, which found that spending has risen faster and taxes have increased more slowly in low-wealth, high need districts.

The fact the state has born the brunt of the additional cost of rising education costs while enrollment drops by drips and drabs in local districts could be one reason there hasn’t been much appetite for school consolidation over the years. One of the statistical outliers in The Post-Journal’s analysis is Ripley, which has seen an 11.23% decrease in its tax levy through tuitioning of students to Chautauqua Lake Central School while booking increases in state aid at the same time. Chautauqua Lake, meanwhile, is one of the few districts not to rely as heavily on state funding to educate its students, with a $257.46 difference over 10 years in increase in state aid per pupil when compared the increase in local tax levy per pupil. Most local districts’ range from a $1,900 to $5,500 difference over the last 10 years. That would seem to back up the Empire Center’s enrollment analysis that experimentation is needed to get a better value for the taxpayer’s dollar.

“These enrollment trends highlight the need for the kind of innovative reforms that New York’s governor, Legislature and union-dominated education establishment have resisted,” the Empire Center report states. “For example, rural districts need more regulatory freedom to experiment with distance learning and regional high school programs. Relief from state mandates–especially those affecting the hiring, assignment and compensation of teachers–would give all districts the greater flexibility they need to deal effectively with the biggest demographic changes they have experienced in a generation.”