News Story

Michigan Grapples With Fewest Number of Students In Decades

Enrollment at lowest point since state kept track back to 1977

If Detroit's public school district had maintained the enrollment level it had just five years ago, the city's schools would have collected an extra $275 million from the state in per student foundation grants during this last school year.

To put this figure in context, persistent overspending has caused the school district to accumulate $166.4 million in operating deficits as of June.

If enrollment in the Flint school district had held steady over the same period, it would have received an additional $47 million from the state. Flint’s cumulative overspending has racked up $17.6 million in debt as of June.

Those two Michigan districts are among the hardest hit in the state by declining enrollment, but they're not the only ones. Overall, the state has experienced 12 consecutive years of having fewer students in public schools.

In the fall of 1977, Michigan public schools enrolled just over 2 million students. It would be the last year the state would have that many students.

By the start of the 2014-15 school year, statewide enrollment had fallen to 1.5 million students. It was 1.75 million in 2002-03, but enrollment has dropped every year since.

The declining number of schoolchildren has financially stressed school districts, even though total state spending has increased. Michigan spent more state dollars on K-12 schools in 2014-15 ($12.06 billion) than in 2002-03 ($11.33 billion), even though the schools are educating 250,000 fewer students.

According to Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, most Michigan school districts have fewer students than in the past.

“I think 90 percent of all schools have a declining enrollment,” Naeyaert said.

Most districts with fewer students have avoided overspending, but the vast majority of the districts in debt have experienced declining enrollment. Specifically, 39 of the 43 school districts with negative operating fund balances have lost students since the 2009-10 school year, according to a regularly updated report released in June by the Michigan Department of Education.

"Our schools are losing students and, in turn, money every year. Districts are forced to close schools, cut programs, overcrowd classrooms and reduce learning resources, all of which hurt students’ ability to learn and succeed. This is especially true for Michigan’s low-income students who need extra support at all levels," said Gilda Z. Jacobs, President and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy. "We need to question the viability of opening more buildings and schools in this environment, and make sure that all schools have enough time to make the tough decisions needed to adjust to declining enrollment — without hurting children’s chances for a top-notch education."

Few if any of those districts have experienced losses like those of Detroit or Flint, however. Detroit had 84,876 students in 2009-10. In the most recent school year, the number was just 47,160, a 44-percent decline. Flint had 12,568 students five years ago. By 2014-15 that number dropped to just 6,343, a nearly 50-percent reduction.

In Michigan, state funding follows the student, so a local district loses funding if a family relocates, or chooses to send their children to a charter school or a school in a neighboring conventional district (permitted under a cross-district “schools of choice” program).

“Enrollment does drive budgets and revenues for schools,” said Michael Van Beek, the director of research for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Yet local school officials who publicly blame legislators for not sending more money tend not to mention their own declining enrollment. If these officials think money should be allocated on some basis other than how many students attend a particular district, they should disclose their preferred system.”

Until the 1990s, families didn't have the option to send their children to a charter school. Giving parents an option has made life more difficult for schools on the losing side of those choices — while easing it for districts and charter schools with the ability to attract students.

Since they were first authorized in early 1990s, charter schools have become an increasingly popular option for parents. In 2002-03, 4 percent of the state’s public school students attended a charter schools. By 2014-15, that number was 10 percent, with 151,300 children being educated by a charter school. Both charters and “schools of choice” are public schools, and their enrollments are included in the statewide enrollment totals reported here. (In other words, the statewide decline in public school enrollment cannot be blamed on the rise of charter schools or cross-district choice.)

Flint and Detroit are not the only urban school districts hard hit by falling enrollment. Pontiac has 30 percent fewer students than five years ago, falling from 6,238 students to 4,385 in 2014-15. Saginaw’s enrollment dropped 21 percent, from 8,697 in 2009-10 to 6,855 in 2014-15.

“In some of urban districts that are poorer performing they are having more dramatic enrollment declines because parents are looking for higher performing alternative schools,” said Naeyaert.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.