What’s driving the Minneapolis school district’s declining enrollment?

The Minneapolis school district’s budget woes have received attention lately after school leadership announced plans for $115 million in cuts for the next school year. This budget gap doesn’t account for salary increases that could be included in the new union contracts that are still being negotiated. (The last round of union contracts certainly contributed to the district’s current financial crisis.) A recent MPR article states that at least 200 full-time job cuts are part of the district’s plan to balance next year’s budget.

Enrollment declines “stretching back at least a quarter century” are being reported as the driving factor for the budget shortfall.

District enrollment is down 43 percent since the early 2000s, according to Minnesota Department of Education data shared by the Minnesota Reformer.

News articles have listed all sorts of reasons for the empty classrooms — from charter school laws, open enrollment policies, and the district’s redistricting to families leaving during school closures and the expiration of federal COVID funds. (Why would you use non-recurring money to add 400 jobs despite years of shrinking enrollment?) There is also the problem of demographic declines, as families with children are leaving the Twin Cities and those who stay are having fewer children than previous generations.

But there’s another layer to enrollment declines that is not getting much attention — why are families (who can) choosing a different learning environment?

Is it lack of academic proficiency? As of spring 2023, over 65 percent of students in the district weren’t meeting grade-level benchmarks in math, according to results on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA). Only eight percent of black students were proficient in math. Nearly 59 percent of students district-wide weren’t reading at grade level.

Is it school safety concerns? The district suffered a massive ransomware attack in 2023, with students’ private files dumped online. Data obtained by KARE 11 from the 2022-23 school year revealed Justice Page Middle School had 20 counts of weapons — ranging from arson and mace to pocketknives and replica/toy guns. Andersen Middle School had 16 counts of weapons, Anwatin Middle School was at 13 counts, and Northeast Middle School at 12 counts. Internal emails from Minneapolis South High staff members have revealed safety concerns and a pattern of violence.

This isn’t the first time school leadership has tried to boost enrollment. In 2017, the district added new literacy programs and a focus on “social-emotional learning” to address low test scores and student needs. In 2019, a task force was assembled “to stem the flow of students out of the district and woo new families” by “improving efforts to listen to and respond to families’ needs, crafting retention plans for schools and improving the district’s culture and school climate.” In 2021, the district’s redistricting plan shuffled thousands of students to new schools and appeared to instead exacerbate enrollment losses.

Now, district staff have “prioritized targeted marketing efforts” that include “mailed information, billboards and video messages that play at gas station pumps across the city” and “attending community events and parades.”

Marketing doesn’t fix what is broken. For the sake of the students who are still in the district — whether by choice or not — the district would do well to pursue meaningful education reforms, such as those my colleague Kathy Kersten recommended over a decade ago: “scientifically-based instruction and intervention, content-rich curricula, a school climate that emphasizes order and discipline, and accountability and incentives for success.”