Oregon’s public schools are cruisin’ for a bruisin’

By William MacKenzie,

Thank goodness for Mississippi.

Only Mississippi lost a larger share of K-12 public school students in the 2022-2023 school year than Oregon.

Oregon’s public schools have lost 30,000 students since the fall of 2019. lowering total enrollment by 5% to 552,000 students in the fall of 2022.

Ethan Sharygin, director of Portland State University’s Population Research Center, told The Oregonian a switch from public school to private school represents about one-quarter of the “missing” students, many left to be homeschooled and some simply dropped out or weren’t enrolled in kindergarten when they reached the age of 5. Smaller slices of the loss are due to families moving out of state and to a gently declining birth rate.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) have been hit particularly hard by declining enrollment. The PPS website says “…With more than 49,000 students in 81 schools, it is one of the largest school districts in the Pacific Northwest.” But that’s far from reality.

In the 2022-23 school year, total enrollment was actually 43,023 and a Portland Public Schools Enrollment Forecast 2022-23 to 2036-37, Based on October 2021 Enrollments projected enrollment will continue to fall throughout most of the forecast horizon, reaching 42,047 in 2025-27, 39,561 in 2031-32 and 39,123 in 2035-36.

Under a “low growth scenario” enrollment could go down further to 37,350 in 2035-36. The difference is primarily due to different assumptions about the levels of net migration (the net movement into and out of the District) of the District’s population.

Every single one of the missing children will represent a loss of revenue to the school district. That’s because Oregon school districts receive (in combined state and local funds) an allocation per student, plus an additional amount for each student enrolled in more costly programs such as Special Education or English Language Learners.

If a departing student shifts to homeschooling, there is no money transfer to families at this point, but the student’s school still loses that student’s funding allocation.

If a student shifts to one of Oregon’s 132 public charter schools, whether a brick-and-mortar institution or an online entity, the money the traditional school got for that student goes to the district sponsoring the charter school. Oregon law then provides that a sponsoring district must pass on to its charter school at least 80 percent of its per-pupil grant for K-8 students and 95 percent of its per pupil grant for grade 9-12 students.

Charter school enrollment in Oregon rose steadily from 1.7 percent of total public school enrollment in 2006-07 to 8.2% (46,275 students) in 2020-2021, then slipped slightly to 7.7% (42,668 students) 2021-2022. Charter school enrollment rose again in the 2022-2023 school year, however, to 11.9% (46,278 students) with 30,578 attending brick-and -mortar schools and 15,700 attending virtual public charter schools.

Right now in Oregon, once a school district has 3% or more of its students enrolled in a virtual public charter school outside the district, it can generally start denying requests. But school choice advocates have been pushing to eliminate that cap. Legislative efforts to remove the cap have failed to date, but that may not hold.

The outflow of students to charters may also accelerate if a movement in Oklahoma is replicated in Oregon. Many parents abandon traditional public schools because they want a more religious-oriented environment for their children. In early June, Oklahoma approved America’s first religious charter school. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma won approval to launch an online charter school that would embrace Catholic doctrine.

Some advocates of religious schooling have been suggesting that any effort to stop charter schools from being religious is a form of discrimination against religion. Ultimately, this issue will end up in court, perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.

Another potential problem could come from the increasing public pressure for more school choice.

The Cascade Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Oregon, is at the forefront of Oregon’s school choice movement. “Oregon’s public schools, largely controlled by teachers’ unions, are a one-size-fits-all system that leaves many students behind,” the Institute argues. “Traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private and parochial schools, homeschooling, and tutoring are all paths to success for students. All options should be valued, and parents should be empowered to choose among them to help their children succeed.”

Cascade is particularly enamored of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), where a percentage of the funds that the state otherwise would spend to educate a student in a public school is deposited into accounts associated with the student’s family. The family may use the funds to spend on private school tuition or other educational expenses.

In Arizona, the school choice movement has secured a similar school voucher program, which has exploded since it was signed into law in 2022.

Arizona’s voucher program allows any child in the state to receive roughly $7,000 each year of their K-12 education while getting instruction at home or attending private school. The Arizona Department of Education recently estimated that enrollment in the program would continue to skyrocket and cost $900 million next year, nearly $300 million more than expected, Public school funding would have to go down to pay for it.

Imagine the hit to traditional public school funding if a similar program were enacted in Oregon.

Regardless of the specific school choice options adopted, the prognosis for public school enrollment in Oregon is grim. How Oregon adapts in managing the enrollment decay is going to be a challenge.