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Arizona public schools see enrollment decline amid coronavirus pandemic

PHOENIX — Fewer families are choosing to send their kids to K-12 public schools in Arizona during the coronavirus pandemic, according to enrollment numbers from the Arizona Department of Education.

Enrollment statewide is down 5% at district and charter schools compared to the end of the last school year. It’s also 4% lower than at this time last year. The biggest drop is among kindergartners, with 14% fewer students enrolled this year.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education said due to some difficulties in reporting, these are preliminary numbers and have not been finalized.

Because school funding is tied to enrollment, the drop could be costly for schools across the state at a time when many of them have expenses related to the pandemic.

“We have over 1.1 million students in the state, so when you talk about a 4% or 5% reduction of students, that means the school districts and charter schools will not be funded for those students,” Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said.

Meanwhile, the state’s school voucher program that allows parents to use state funds to cover private school tuition or homeschooling is seeing substantial growth, which could be an indication of where students are going.

The Arizona Department of Education had projected enrollment in the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to be 8,400 students by the end of the year. As of last week, the number of active enrollments was already at 9,500.

Essigs said the drop in public school enrollment has the potential to cause “very serious issues for school funding.”

He also explained that a drop in enrollment doesn’t necessarily mean fewer costs for a school. For example, the costs to run a classroom, including a teacher’s salary, for the most part remain the same even after losing a few students. What changes is there are less funds available to cover those costs.

However, he said a grant program Gov. Doug Ducey created over the summer may help.

The Enrollment Stabilization Grant Program is meant to protect schools against budget shortfalls due to declining enrollment. The program allows school districts and charter schools to get at least 98% of the funding they got based on last year’s enrollment numbers.

“So under that provision, a school district’s loss of funding is minimized in that it couldn’t be greater than 2%,” Essigs said.

Schools experiencing enrollment increases could also get 5% more funding than last year.

The governor’s office has allocated $370 million for the Enrollment Stabilization Grant Program. The deadline to apply was Aug. 28.

Once school districts and charters submit their final 40th-day count enrollment data for this school year, which is how the funds will be calculated, the final awards will be computed and announced mid-November. The money will be disbursed soon after.

Enrollment declines could be a result of parents choosing to homeschool their kids because of the pandemic.

That’s what Nicole Guysi and her husband of Glendale chose for their 9-year-old daughter Brooke. She was born with a rare genetic condition that makes her immunocompromised, therefore, high risk for COVID-19.

“We did try virtual learning and it just was not feasible for our daughter,” Guysi said.

Because Brooke has progressive vision loss, Guysi said she and her husband worried it could worsen her vision.

They applied for the ESA program and were approved in August. The program allows parents to use state funds to cover private school tuition, homeschooling, tutoring services and other education-related expenses.

Guysi said the ESA funds help pay for a homeschool curriculum and a tutor for Brooke.

“I’m grateful that we have ESA and that we were able to find a tutor, because I really don’t know what we would have done without this option,” Guysi said.

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