Hawaii is on track to have fewer students enrolled in state-run schools by 2027 than at any point since the early years of statehood. 

A decade after Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School closed its doors because of low enrollment, the ripple effects the closure had on the greater Kaimuki neighborhood can still be felt by longtime residents.

The 99-year-old school served as a meeting place for the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, which no longer has a regular meeting site. It hosted annual public celebrations of Queen Liliuokalani’s birthday. Nearby residents used the basketball courts during off hours.

“I’m still upset about it,” said Lyle Bullock, a former neighborhood board member whose daughter was attending the school when it closed. “Not for me personally, but for the community.”

It’s been years since the state has taken steps to shutter a school, but difficult decisions like the one made in Kaimuki may lie ahead for other communities if public school enrollment continues to decline.

If current projections hold true, by the 2027-28 school year Hawaii will have fewer students enrolled in state-run public schools than at any point since 1962.

The Queen Lydia Liliuokalani Elementary School closed more than a decade ago but the effect on the community is still being felt. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

It’s a startling data point that could have big repercussions for public education in a state where many smaller and rural schools are already struggling to keep programs afloat.

“It’s a significant concern,” Bruce Voss, chair of the state Board of Education said of the declines, adding that at this time the BOE is not planning or considering any closures. 

“We have a lot on our plate right now to remediate the learning loss caused by the pandemic,” Voss said. “That is our primary focus now.”

But some education experts say now is the time to start having hard conversations about what a shrinking student population might mean and to use federal Covid-19 relief funds to better prepare for the future.

Schools nationwide with declining enrollment are going to face very serious fiscal pressure to reduce staffing and close under-enrolled schools, said Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford University who has been studying public school enrollment changes during the pandemic.

“I think so many of us focus on this propitious moment where many states have access to these extra funds from the federal government, because it at least gives states and districts some fiscal capacity to navigate this,” Dee said.

Pandemic Made Things Worse 

Enrollment in DOE schools had been slowly but steadily declining in Hawaii before the pandemic, driven by out-migration, fewer births, and the growing popularity of public charter schools. Hawaii also has one of the highest rates of private school enrollment in the nation. 

Covid-19 significantly accelerated the declines.

Nationally and in Hawaii many parents didn’t enroll their children in kindergarten, a particularly difficult age to engage remotely. But there wasn’t a large surge in enrollment in first grade students during the second year of the pandemic, Dee said.

 “It suggests to me enrollment losses will be enduring,” Dee said.

Enrollment in Hawaii declined roughly 6.8% in the last five years and is currently projected by the DOE to drop another 5.4% by 2027-28.

“A decline of that magnitude is substantial,” Dee said.

Declining enrollment is a concern nationwide – and Dee says some districts in other states are already grappling with school closures — but it’s particularly worrisome for small schools in Hawaii. The majority of state education funding in Hawaii is allocated using what’s known as a weighted student formula, a per-student figure that takes into account student needs like special education services.

The formula was designed so that school funding would be more equitable across schools and follow students, said Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s office of fiscal services. That means schools already anticipate a certain degree of fluctuation each year based on enrollment changes.

“It’s not entirely a problem for schools to have reduced funding, it’s just when it becomes of such a magnitude that they can’t do what they need to do,” Hallett said.

The enrollment losses are not equally spread across the state. Some schools, like Kahului Elementary school on Maui and Haleiwa Elementary on Oahu are predicted to lose 20% of their students between now and 2027-28. A few schools are expected to experience growth, including Barbers Point Elementary on Oahu, which is slated to increase enrollment by 11%.

The DOE produces six-year enrollment projects every year to help schools engage in short and long-term planning. Unexpected and significant changes to enrollment projections in the short term — something schools impacted by the Red Hill fuel contamination experienced last year — is much more disruptive to school operations than slow and predictable long term changes, Hallett said.

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, was a registrar at McKinley High School during a time when the student body declined by about 16%. The school cut its French program and eliminated some teacher positions as a result of financial cuts, but because the school still has a population of more than 1,600 students the losses were manageable. It’s smaller and mid-sized schools that struggle the most with funding cuts. 

BOE Chair Bruce Voss says the board currently has no plans to close schools and that any move to do so in the future should include a robust community process. (Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2023)

The state’s weighted student formula has mostly been successful, Voss of the BOE said. But there needs to be another funding mechanism to support small rural schools so that they have the funding to provide students the education they deserve. The DOE is requesting additional funds this year from the Legislature for the funding formula to provide some additional support. 

Making sure smaller schools have sufficient staff and a range of classes is critical to making sure the schools are attractive to parents, Voss said. Otherwise the enrollment declines being a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Hard Choices Ahead

Adding to the enrollment problem is the fact that the state is dotted with aging school buildings and a maintenance backlog that will take years to address. As buildings age at schools with small enrollments, the financial arguments for keeping them open are likely to become more fraught.

“We’ve got more need than we have money and resources,” DOE Deputy Superintendent Curt Otaguro told lawmakers at a legislative budget briefing earlier this month, warning them that tough decisions may be needed down the line about where resources are allocated as school buildings — and the state’s population — continue to age.

But a lot can happen in five years to impact enrollment projections, counters Brian Hallett, assistant superintendent in the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Services. He says it’s too soon to start talking about things like school closures when the school system is still emerging from the disruptions of the pandemic.

Hallett said he’s cautiously optimistic that state and county efforts to regulate vacation rentals and address a lack of affordable housing will help mitigate enrollment declines in the future.

“There’s a lot of effort to work against these projections, where they’re headed, and address the migration issue,” Hallett said.

Making decisions today based on what might happen in six years can also cause all sorts of problems, he said.

A decade ago, the DOE was considering closing several schools in Hawaii Kai because of low enrollment. None of those schools currently have enrollment problems, Hallett said, using the schools as an example of the challenge of making decisions based on what’s happening at one point in time.

“We have to take a longer-term view of schools,” Hallett said. “Closing one of those schools in the time where it seemed appropriate would have painted ourselves into a corner and created a future problem.”

The best thing lawmakers can do about the projected declines is not overreact, Hallett said.

If and when school closures should be considered again by the Hawaii BOE, Voss says it’s important for there to be a robust effort to engage impacted communities in what they want and which school should be considered for closure. There also needs to be significant planning for how any closed campuses will be utilized for learning or educational purposes so that they don’t sit vacant. 

The dwindling student population also places public education in Hawaii at something of a crossroads. Funding cuts could lead to larger class sizes, program reductions and even school closures. But if the state maintains funding levels despite a drop in students, the changes could provide a chance to improve the educational experience for students who remain.

“We’ve got more need than we have money and resources.” — DOE Assistant Superintendent Curt Otaguro

If fewer students are enrolled and funding doesn’t change, the per-student funding formula would increase, making it so that some schools could theoretically have the same amount of funding even with a decline in students, Hallett said. 

Fewer students without funding cuts could mean smaller class sizes, better art and music electives, or more one-on-one instruction, Jim Shon, a former state lawmaker and education policy expert said in an email.

“The legislature is the driver for this non-crisis,” he said.

Dee at Stanford says the best things school districts can do right now is conduct a needs assessment about what students need most as they emerge from the pandemic, and engage in conversations about how to best handle any cuts that might lie ahead. The influx of federal relief funds into districts provides a unique opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive. 

“Crises can also be opportunities,” Dee said. The federal funds might allow some districts to be really thoughtful and nimble with how they navigate enrollment declines and fashion a better future for the students that attend their schools. 

It’s more likely for the process to be fairly reactive in most districts.

“It can be hard for school districts to engage in that kind of blue sky planning,” Dee said. “So I think what you’re more likely to see as districts face pressure to close schools is really contentious community discussions.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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