Fewer students mean less state money for schools

OLYMPIA — Washington state’s public schools will get less money than anticipated from the state in the coming school year, but don’t call it a budget cut.

As state lawmakers have trumpeted since passing a bipartisan spending plan earlier this month, it is the first budget in three years that includes no new cuts to K-12 education.

But because of a lower-than-expected increase in student enrollment, schools will be forced to make do with $61 million less than what had been earmarked by the state in the two-year budget passed in 2011.

Between November and February, the state revised its estimated head count of about 1 million students for the coming school year down by more than 10,000. The accompanying reduction in school spending, politicians and state education officials say, does not amount to a budget cut.

But it does mean less money for schools.

“The fact that we stopped cutting education is an important message policy-wise and to some extent psychologically,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who helped craft the budget.

However, he acknowledged, there is a “larger policy discussion” to be had about whether and how to reinvest savings from lower enrollment figures — or in the case of the social services, from reduced caseloads.

The $61 million reduction may seem small next to the $6.8 billion the state will spend on K-12 education next year. And for a minority of school districts that expect to hit their enrollment targets, such as Seattle, there will be no impact.

But for the Olympia School District, for example, an anticipated shortfall of 56 students translates into about $250,000 less from the state in the coming year. The district will fill this hole by not replacing retiring teachers and support staff and by tapping into its already dwindling reserve fund, said district spokesman Ryan Betz.

Depending on their circumstances, other districts could put off buying textbooks or replacing old equipment, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The downward revision in the enrollment forecast was the result of “a perfect storm” of factors, said John Steiger, director of the state’s Caseload Forecast Council.

First, with the state unemployment rate above 8 percent, the net flow of people into the state remains anemic. Second, with the economic downturn ebbing, fewer parents are moving their kids from private to public schools.

Finally, the Legislature last year cut by 15 percent funding to so-called alternative learning experience programs, which serve close to 40,000 students in hybrid in-class and at-home high schools, online schools and in “parent partnerships,” where they’re predominantly home schooled but with coursework overseen by a public school teacher.

The Caseload Forecast Council anticipated a resulting enrollment decline, but the revised estimate of about 3,000 students leaving is steeper than expected.

“Unfortunately for me, all this happened at same time,” said Steiger. “Although I’m sure (lawmakers) were pleased enrollment was down by 10,000 instead of up by 10,000.”

Until last year, many districts would commonly give those in parent partnership programs stipends of $1,000 or more to pay for educational materials or activities of their choosing, including horseback riding, ski lessons, piano lessons and travel.

Districts receive money from the state based on student enrollment. Lawmakers, worried that districts were inappropriately enticing students — some of them living hundreds of miles away — to enroll with them, banned these practices in 2011.

The current law bars districts from offering “any compensation, reimbursement, gift, reward, or gratuity to any parents, guardians, or students for participation” and prohibits them paying for activities not available to those in the district’s traditional public schools.

Because most of those compelled by the belt-tightening to leave the public school system have by now done so, and more broadly because birth rates spiked five years ago and better times are foreseen on the horizon, the state is predicting that overall enrollment will rise at a higher rate in 2013.

“All of this assumes no big changes, like to the economy,” said Steiger.

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