Breaking the Fall: Cushioning the Impact of Rural Declining Enrollment

Last Updated: February 28, 2006

Breaking the Fall

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By Lorna Jimerson, Ed.D

Persistent declining enrollment can cause significant challenges for schools and districts. When the enrollment decline is chronic, it generates serious financial distress because of the loss of per-pupil state revenue. This financial hemorrhage usually results in deeps cuts in programs, staff, and resources. Small rural schools are especially vulnerable to these problems, since they have proportionally less leeway in finding cost-saving areas. Eventually, declining enrollment can lead to their closure in spite of their value to rural communities and students.

This report highlights the role that state educational policies have in either magnifying the challenges of declining enrollment, or conversely, mitigating them. The report contains 20 policy recommendations, primarily focused on state funding formulas.

Though there is no silver bullet that will "fix" all problems associated with declining enrollment, these recommended state and local policies can accomplish two goals: (1) Buy time and give communities and economies time to rebound and/or adjust to population and revenue loss; and (2) Ensure that all students in communities with declining enrollment are offered an excellent education.

The report asserts that states and local communities must act to sustain and improve small rural schools with declining enrollment. There are always students "left behind" in these communities and they have the same rights to an equal educational opportunity as those who leave. Indeed, our society's obligation to educate is not dependent on demographic good fortune and cannot, and should not, be compromised by geography.