Georgia’s Kindergarten Enrollment Falls, Signaling Possible Drop In School Funding

Georgia’s public schools saw an 11% drop in kindergarten enrollment in the fall of 2020. That could mean a decrease of $100 million in state funding for schools.

Kaitlin Kolarik / for WABE

New state data show kindergarten enrollment in Georgia’s public schools has dropped 11% this fall. That means public schools could lose more than $100 million in state funding next year.

The coronavirus pandemic threw schools for a loop last spring.

They had to figure out things like how to shift to remote learning and how to distribute meals. But Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said recently some topics have been overlooked.

“We’re not discussing … the impact that the decreases in kindergarten enrollment will have on our budgets next year and what we can do as a state, as a community, to mitigate for that so we don’t lose funding next year,” Beasley said during an online discussion about COVID-19’s impact on schools.

Georgia’s public schools receive a combination of federal, state and local revenue. State lawmakers fund schools through a formula called QBE (Quality Basic Education). QBE is a per-pupil funding formula, meaning the state funds schools based on the number of students they serve.

Stephen Owens is a senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. He says a steep drop in kindergarten enrollment can affect school budgets for years to come.

“[Enrollment numbers are] how you plan out how many buses you have, the bonds you have for your buildings, there’s a lot of fixed costs that go into educating students that are paid out several years in advance,” Owens said.

Schools don’t really save money when enrollment decreases, he said, because fixed costs don’t change.

“If you lose five students in a classroom, you can’t turn down the heat by five students,” Owens said. “You can’t fire 1/20 of a teacher.”

Georgia’s student enrollment growth tapered off the last few years, but Owens says an 11% drop in kindergarten enrollment (about 9,500 students) is a steep year-over-year decrease.

“If you’ve had several years of flat or declining enrollments, then you can start building out multiyear budgets accordingly,” he said. “But as it stands with one large hit, especially as you are increasing costs due to the pandemic, it can have consequences for several years in the future.”

Last spring, Congress passed a coronavirus relief package that helped some Georgia districts balance their budgets for the 2021 fiscal year. Owens said more federal funding could help districts compensate for lower enrollment, but he also said state lawmakers can take steps to help, too.

“We have one of the lowest tobacco taxes in the United States,” Owens said. “If we raise that to the national average, and have similar taxes on vape products, that’s $600 million that shows up in the state coffers, which could do an immense amount of good for our public school students.”

Georgia’s cigarette tax is 37 cents per pack, the third-lowest in the U.S.

Owens said lawmakers could also review corporate tax breaks to see whether they’re worth continuing. If not, he said, officials could use the money to help school districts shore up their budgets.