Rural schools face lower enrollment
An enrollment-based K-12 state school funding policy will likely punish Wisconsin urban and rural school districts over the next decade, while rewarding suburban districts.
That’s what the data tells Sarah Kemp, researcher at the UW-Madison Applied Population Center, who spoke last week Wednesday to the 22nd annual UWStevens Point Conference on Small Cities and Regional Community. The social scientist told the gathering that rural schools, attended by 155,000 students in 2018-19, will see enrollments decline as far as 138,000 by 2028-29. Urban schools will also likely lose enrollment over that time period, from 275,000 to 250,00.
Only suburban schools, said Kemp, will likely benefit from school spending caps based on enrollment. Those schools, she said, will predictably see their enrollments grow from 225,000 to 230,000.
Kemp said the decline in rural school enrollments is a symptom of rural Wisconsin depopulating over the past century.
Back in 1890, the researcher said, Wisconsin, like the rest of the United States, was a rural place. Now, she said, the situation has flipped. Again, like the rest of the country, most Wisconsin residents live in cities.
In 1890, Kemp said 67 percent of Wisconsin residents were rural and 33 percent were urban. By 2010, only 30 percent of people were rural, while 70 percent were city dwellers.
Kemp said that this shift from rural to urban has been slow but steady. Rural counties have a median age nine years old than urban counties. The oldest Wisconsin counties are mostly far north: Iron, Vilas, Adams, Door, Burnett and Florence. The youngest counties, by comparison, are St. Croix, Outagamie, Brown, Kenosha and Dane.
Urban counties are younger because they are more diverse. In 2012-16, rural Wisconsin counties were 92 percent white, while urban counties were only 53 percent white. Suburban counties were 86 percent white.
Kemp said Wisconsin white people are, on average, older than blacks, Asians and Latinos. She said the average median age of Wisconsin whites is 47; blacks, 43; Asians, 30; and Latinos, 26.
The depopulation of rural counties follows trends in the economy, she said. Back in 1980, 55,000 men worked in the lumber industry. By 2017, that number had been reduced to 9,520. In 1935, the state boasted 180,065 dairy farms. By 2017, that number collapsed to 9,530.
Kemp said these demographic trends push urban rural and suburban school districts to call for referendums. Suburban schools, she said, try to get financing for new school buildings. Urban and rural schools, on the other hand, go to referendum for operating money.
In 2018, she said, Wisconsin school districts put $2.2 billion of referendums on the ballot. Of that amount,
suburban schools wanted $1 billion. Rural schools, on the other hand, wanted $500 million.
“Declining number of students and young adults in rural areas will impact school districts for funding and school resources,” she said.