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Enrollment in Wisconsin's public schools did not rebound after a sharp drop last fall

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Rhinelander School District
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Enrollment in Wisconsin’s public schools did not rebound this year after it dropped sharply in 2020, according to new headcount data released Friday by the state Department of Public Instruction.

It shows that after a 3 percent drop in enrollment last fall, enrollment at public schools fell by another 0.5 percent this year.

Participation in 4k and summer schools took the biggest hits in the 2020-2021 school year.

More students enrolled in those programs this year, but enrollment in grades 1-12 continued to drop, following a trend that has been present in Wisconsin’s public schools for years.

“We’ve definitely had a long-term gradual and slow decline in public school district enrollment in Wisconsin,” Dan Bush, the Department of Public Instruction’s school financial services director, says. “It’s driven largely by demographics, as the largest classes that came in in the late 90s and early 2000s graduate out. People are having fewer children and Wisconsin has not benefitted as much from migration as other states.”

What is unusual is how steep the decline was last year, months into a global pandemic.

“What we saw last year was certainly a sharper decline in public school enrollment than typical,” Bush says.

But this year, instead of going back up, enrollment at many schools dropped even more.

For example, at Mercer School District enrollment in the district was down by 27 students in the 2020-2021 school year. It fell by another 19 students this year.

Butternut, Chequamegon, Elcho, Phelps, and Phillips are all in similar situations.

Other districts, like Rhinelander and Tomahawk gained students this year, but not enough to make up for the amount they lost the year before.

These declines could have an impact on the amount of school funding the districts receive.

That’s because, in Wisconsin, a school’s revenue limit is based on enrollment. If enrollment drops for several years at a time, the amount of money the school can take in will also drop.

“At least for a period of time, until that decline comes out of a school district’s three-year averages, we’re going to see the impact of COVID-19 on school district funding in Wisconsin,” Bush says. “And with the pandemic continuing to effect numbers this fall, that really won’t shake out completely until 2025.”

Not every district will face this challenge though.

Enrollment at Northland Pines and Lakeland Union increased since the pandemic started, and charter schools across the state reported a 15 percent increase in enrollment from last year.

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