Providence Enrollment Dispute Shows Unpredictable Harvest


Arguments over enrollment projections in Providence illustrate the limits of deciding education policy based on its effects on enrollment.  That is, saying that an expanded charter school — or total school choice, for that matter — will “cost” a district students is incomplete without assessing what enrollment trends are doing anyway.  Government schools aren’t supposed to take expansion as a goal; that’s business-type thinking.  They’re supposed to educate the students that they have.

On that count, disagreement has arisen.  State Education Commissioner Ken Wagner predicts that Providence will see its enrollment increase by 1,000 students over the next five years, meaning that the proposed Achievement First expansion would only reduce total enrollment by around 2,000 over 10 years.  Plugging those numbers into the spreadsheet that I set up for my first post on this topic, a natural enrollment increase of 200 students every year for five years would bring the net cost of the charter expansion down from around $33.0 million to around $17.5 million after 10 years, with the very conservative estimate that the district could only reduce its teaching staff by one for every two full classes worth of reduced students.

Those within the Providence system, however, disagree with the commissioner’s prediction:

… the latest data from the Providence public schools shows a decline in enrollment of about 1,136 students between now and 2020.  Enrollments continue to decline between 2020 and 2015 – by another 1,599 students. A private, non-profit organization called the New England School Development Council (NESCD) developed the enrollment projections for Providence earlier this year.

If this projection turns out to be the case, then Providence stands to save $30 million in teacher compensation, using the city auditor’s less-extreme assumption that the city could reduce teaching staff each time one-and-a-half classes worth of students are no longer full.  It’s clear, however, that those putting these numbers forward aren’t looking for silver linings, but implying that having to educate even fewer students will cause hardship within the system.

But again:  The first concern for those who set government policies in Rhode Island should be the outcomes for the students, not the size of the harvest for the school system within the government plantation.  Flipping the priorities can lead to policies that, for example, draw high-cost immigrants into our schools, as has been the case with Providence’s recent increase in enrollment.

Funny.  Nobody within the government school system ever bothers to project the cost of that development.