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LAUSD board considers better marketing as it tackles declining enrollment

File photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images
More families are choosing charter schools over Los Angeles Unified's schools. Enrollment in independent charter schools has tripled in less than a decade.

Student enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District dropped 20 percent in the last eight years, a loss of more than 100,000 students, according to figures released Tuesday.

Southern California's school-age population is also declining, but many families are simply opting for other schools and districts. Enrollment in independent charter schools overseen by LAUSD tripled since 2006. 

The declining enrollment has dire financial implications for the district: state funding is tied to number of students.

“We are still in a very precarious situation,” said school board member Steve Zimmer. “How do we attract families who have increasing choices?”

At the board's Committee of the Whole meeting on Tuesday, members recommended a new marketing campaign to attract and keep more students. The effort could include public television segments, neighborhood door-knocking and promotions of magnet schools focusing on science or art and dual-language programs, such as Spanish, Korean and Mandarin. 

“If they know you and trust you, they’ll come to your school,” said board member George McKenna, who called for concrete goals and timelines as the district moves to stem the trend.

Declining enrollment has pushed the district into a “structural deficit,” a shortfall that's projected based on factors like student numbers and expenses. The district is losing about $10,000 in state funding with each departing student while costs such as campus utilities and staff retirement benefits continue to rise.

“It’s not going to be easy, because we never had this competition before,” McKenna said, referring to the students who have left for charter schools.

Charter school advocates said poor financial practices are to blame for the district's budgetary state, not charters.

“[L.A. Unified board members] say to parents who have chosen a different public school option for their children that they are the reason for LAUSD’s financial decline,” said Jason Mandell, a spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association. “It is a heavy burden for families to bear and completely misplaced.”

Families often pull out from district schools after the elementary grades. There are nearly 30 percent fewer seventh-graders than kindergartners, a statistic that suggests the district's post-elementary schools are less attractive to parents.

Michelle King, the district's deputy superintendent, recommended elementary schools “build pathways and pipelines” for families and suggested promoting mass enrollment to groups of parents in hopes of spawning a movement.

“It’s a place they can be pioneers,” King said.