One refrain I have heard from Adirondack leaders through the years is that declining school enrollments across the Adirondacks, with particular emphasis on the closures of the Piseco School and Lake Clear School, show the overall decline of the Adirondacks as a viable social and economic region. Blaming environmental policies immediately follows these statements. I have always argued back that there are many factors that affect school enrollment levels and that the changes afoot in the Adirondacks are far less severe than the changes that are transforming vast portions of Rural America.
I have friends in Vermont, one of whom is a school board member, and I have followed his experiences. In many ways their rural lives are similar to my life in Blue Mountain Lake, but in many ways their lives are very different. The biggest difference is that they live in Vermont, which means they live a fantasy life in a fully functioning modern state and civil society. Vermont is calmly in the midst of a major upheaval caused by aggressive school consolidations and closures. Many rural schools in Vermont, many of which are K-12s similar to many Adirondack schools, are closing as communities have approved consolidations.
In the 2017-18 academic year there were 78,733 K-12 students enrolled in Vermont schools. Over 67% of these students are in school districts that are changing through consolidation. Vermont has a strong state role in public education. The state is divided into three dozen Supervisory Unions (SUs), which oversee various school districts. One school district may have several schools, while others are single-district K-12s. In 2015, Vermont passed Act 46, which eliminated and combined some of the SUs, and provided a raft of incentives for school district consolidation. Though this legislation impacted over two-thirds of Vermont school kids, it passed and has been fully implemented over the past three years.
It’s hard to imagine this kind of top down decision-making in New York. It’s hard to imagine this kind of legislation that changed school systems for two-thirds of the state’s school kids ever getting traction in New York.
The changes in Vermont have been sweeping. 151 school districts were merged into just 38. A dozen of the regional SUs were eliminated or redrawn. Vermont felt pressed to action. School enrollment in Vermont peaked at 105,000 in 1996 and has dropped to 78,000 today, but the driving theme was to strengthen and improve the educational experience for students. School enrollment is predicted to continue to fall to the mid- or low-70,000s by 2026. The big challenge was to take action to make schools stronger and educational opportunities better in the face of sustained falling enrollments.
It’s not just Vermont. From 1990 to 2002, over 300 schools were closed in West Virginia. In Arkansas, more than 100 schools were closed between 2004 and 2011. Robert Wuthnow, a legendary sociologist from Princeton University who studies Rural America, found that over 7,000 out of 18,000 rural schools were closed across the U.S. since 1990.
The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Institute of Education Sciences, recently published its 45th report on secondary school enrollments across the U.S. This report found that the number of school age kids is growing in the U.S. and is predicted to continue to grow. Across the U.S. the total number of kids enrolled in public schools now tops 50 million and is predicted to top 51.7 million by 2026. There are also some 5 million kids in private schools, though these numbers have come down from over 6.3 million in 2014. It’s estimated that there will be 5.1 million kids in private schools by 2026.
Student enrollment gains and loses are not shared equally among the states. 21 states are expected to lose students between now and 2026. Of these 21, 10 are expected to see loses of over 5%. States with projected major loses are Mississippi, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The southeast U.S., Texas, the southwest, and west are all projected to see school enrollment increases, though much of these gain will be in metropolitan areas.
New York is among 11 states that is predicted to lose between 0-5% of its current enrollment. Every state in the northeast U.S., from New Jersey and Pennsylvania north to Maine, is expected to see a drop in school enrollments. Every state that surrounds New York is expected to see a decline in school enrollments. In New York, there are 1 million fewer school students today than there were in 1970.
In New York, school closure and consolidation has been a third-rail issue that politicians in Albany fear to touch. It’s also been a challenging issue for local communities to grapple with in Upstate New York and the Adirondacks, where all but a handful of school districts are seeing drops. We’re seeing the challenges of this decision play out in Westport and Elizabethtown now, where these communities have strongly backed a thoughtful merger plan with a final vote looming in December. The communities of Westport and Elizabethtown are not alone. This is likely just the first of a number of significant consolidations across the Adirondacks and Upstate New York, where school enrollments have dropped dramatically in recent years and are projected to continue to drop in the years ahead.
Photo courtesy NYS Education Department.