As Clark County’s largest school districts grappled with budget cuts this summer, most faced a somewhat surprising culprit: declining enrollment.
Vancouver and Evergreen Public Schools projected enrollment drops of hundreds of students this school year, and with that, millions of dollars in lost state allocations – projections that have largely held true as school kicked off.
But with sprawling growth in Clark County, why are the area’s most urban districts apparently shrinking? Blame those darn millennials.
OK, as with any story about millennials ruining or killing something, it’s more complicated than that. Experts point to underlying demographic and economic trends disproportionately affecting the county’s young adults, leading to a cooling in birth rates and, in turn, lower school enrollment.
“The bottom line is that the enrollment drops are greatest in the school districts that aren’t getting much new single-family residential development, coupled with declining birth rates,” said Eric Hovee, a Clark County demographer who works with school districts.
The effect of declining enrollment ultimately comes down to dollars. School districts in Washington are funded based on the number of full-time students who attend, with adjustments made based on the grade levels, poverty rates and number of students enrolled in special education programming.
According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data, the state funds about $8,736 per full-time student, with supplemental dollars and local levy dollars added on top of that. Declining enrollment left Evergreen Public Schools anticipating an overall hit of about $3 million to its general fund budget, which is about $385 million. Vancouver anticipated a $2.3 million hit to its $333 million general fund budget.
Battle Ground Public Schools, meanwhile, is celebrating increasing enrollment this year. Enrollment across the entire school district has fluctuated up and down in the last five years, posing a challenge for district budget staff tasked with building a budget driven by enrollment.
But for the district’s director of school finance Meagan Hayden, early enrollment projections brought welcome news this year. The district is anticipating about 100 additional full-time students from last year, and more students means more revenue from the state.
“I’m hopeful,” Hayden said.
What the data shows
This year’s declines are part of a broader trend. Clark County’s largest school districts, Evergreen and Vancouver Public Schools, have been hit hardest by declining enrollment the past five years. Early data this year doesn’t provide an apples-to-apples comparison to historic data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, but so far, it’s looking like Vancouver and Evergreen’s projected enrollment declines have borne out.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction data shows enrollment in the Evergreen school district has dropped by 1,071 students in the last five years, including 260 students between 2017-2018 and 2018-2019.
Vancouver Public Schools, meanwhile, added 338 students between the 2014-2015 school year and the 2016-2017 school year. But enrollment has since declined, down 149 students since peaking in 2016-2017.
Clark County’s more suburban districts, meanwhile, have grown substantially. Camas and Ridgefield each added about 900 students in that five-year period.
Hovee said those two communities have been the “poster children” of attracting young families into the area — “as long as the affordability doesn’t get too out of whack.”
Declining birth rates
Enrollment drops have particularly pronounced in kindergarten through third grade. Over that five-year time frame, Vancouver Public Schools lost 558 young students, while Evergreen lost 444 young students.
“Younger couples are not having children as quickly,” said Brett Blechschmidt, chief financial officer for Vancouver Public Schools.
That tracks with declining birth rates in Clark County, which, according to Department of Health data, have dropped in the last decade. For example, today’s kindergartners would have been born in 2014 or 2013. The birth rate per 1,000 women of childbearing years those years was 64.6 and 62.6 children, respectively.
Ten years before that, in 2004 and 2003, the birth rate was 68.6 and 67.4 children per thousand.
Hovee points to the “millennial effect.” Younger couples are struggling to buy single-family homes and pay off student debt. He also notes that millennials, compared with past generations, tend to postpone starting families until they’re older — if they have children at all.
“That’s a smaller proportion of that cohort than was the case with baby boomers,” he said.
The baby boomer effect
Experts also point to the availability of affordable housing — or lack therefore of — among the causes for declining enrollment. Median home sale prices have been trending upward in Clark County since 2012, ending in August 2019 at $380,000, according to the latest Market Action report from the Regional Multiple Listing Service.
“(Millennials) are really having a tough time getting into the market,” Hovee said.
Compounding that is the fact that baby boomers in Clark County appear to be staying in their homes longer, leading to less turnover. Marjorie Ledell, who sits on the Clark County Commission on Aging, estimated that nine out of 10 people want to stay in their home when they turn 65, a concept called “aging in place.”
“It’s more economical for people to stay in their home,” Ledell said.
She also suggested that older couples who are looking to downsize may also be eyeing the same homes as younger generations. The typical qualities of a starter home — a bathroom and bedroom on the first floor, proximity to parks and public transportation, and smaller floor plans — are often ideal for older residents.
“That makes the competition for those houses a little stiffer,” she said.
Looking forward, experts like Hovee don’t predict much in the way of changes for areas in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts. These pockets of the county, home primarily to older couples, young professionals and single residents, means districts can continue to expect a student shortage.
“None of that is going to produce many kids for the long term,” he said.