The 2010 AS&U 100

Enrollment declines in many large public school districts reflect difficult economic conditions.

Big isn't as big as it used to be for many of the largest school districts.

The most recent enrollment numbers for the nation's biggest school districts seem to reflect the country's ailing economy. Forty-eight of the 100 largest public school systems in the United States in 2008-09 reported enrollment declines compared with the previous year's numbers. Districts that have had long track records of steady growth have seen their numbers stagnating or decreasing in recent years.

The 100 largest districts reported total student enrollment of 10,735,269 in 2008-09, compared with 10,754,112 enrolled in those districts in 2007-08, a drop of 0.18 percent. Most of the data on which the rankings are compiled comes from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Among colleges and universities, which have the ability to control how many students are admitted, enrollments for fall 2008 are generally up. Institutions that emphasize online courses — University of Phoenix, Strayer University, Kaplan University — are among those reporting the largest increases in student numbers.

In elementary and secondary education, the enrollment declines in most school districts are small, but even tiny decreases are a significant adjustment for systems that had become accustomed to yearly enrollment jumps. For many systems, the increases in the late 1980s and most of the 1990s began to disappear in the early years of the new century.

Of the 100 largest districts in 2008-09, only 10 reported enrollment declines from 1988 to 1998, and the steepest enrollment decline over those 10 years was 4.58 percent in Atlanta. But from 1998 to 2008, 36 of those districts reported enrollment declines, including a 43.8 percent decrease in Detroit, a 34.7 percent decrease in Cleveland, and a 22.9 percent decrease in Philadelphia.

Florida is a prime example of a state where years of enrollment growth ended abruptly in the 2000s. The state has 14 districts among the nation's 100 largest. From 1988 to 2005, enrollment in those 14 districts rose 58 percent; but from 2005 to 2008, those school systems saw student numbers decline by 2.3 percent. Twelve of those 14 saw enrollment drop from 2007 to 2008.

In Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Orange counties, enrollment rose steadily every year from 1986 through the early 2000s. Enrollment in Palm Beach and Broward began declining after 2004-05, and Hillsborough and Orange experienced declines a year later.

From 2007 to 2008, only two districts moved into the list of the 100 largest: Conroe, Texas, and Wichita, Kan. Dropping off the list were the San Juan (Calif.) and Washington, D.C., school systems. The huge enrollment drop in Washington, D.C. — 23.8 percent — occurred in large part because the school system no longer includes charter school enrollment in its district student count.

The district among the 100 largest reporting the sharpest enrollment increase in 2008-09 was the Douglas County (Colo.) system. Its year-to-year growth was 10.8 percent, from 52,983 to 58,723. Now the 67th-largest district, Douglas County is more than five times its size of 20 years ago.

The most precipitous one-year enrollment drop was in the struggling Detroit district, where student numbers fell 9.5 percent in 2008-09, from 107,874 to 97,577.

The addition of the Conroe district to the list gives Texas 19 school systems among the 100 largest — the most of any state. Sixteen of the 19 reported enrollment increases from 2007-08 to 2008-09. Those districts accounted for 1,450,731 students in 2008-09, a 44.4 percent increase over those districts' 1988-89 figures.

Although Florida has fewer districts than Texas on the list, its larger, countywide school systems account for more students — 1,859,423 in 2008-09.

California has 12 districts among the 100 largest. They accounted for 1,414,989 students in 2008-09, about 7,000 fewer students than 2007-08. Compared with the previous year, six districts experienced increases and six decreases in 2008-09.

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