In education, one size does not fit all

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Iowa’s K-12 enrollment is up for the first time in nearly two decades — that’s the good news.

Bad news is those enrollment figures, released by the state last week, probably aren’t much more than a blip in continuing trend of decline.

And, anyway, only about half of the state’s 348 districts saw any part of the 0.6 percent increase in K-12 enrollment between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. Look at the five-year figures, and the number’s even worse.

Cedar Rapids tops the list for raw numbers, with a loss of 851 students since the 2008-09 school year. Some smaller districts have seen as much as a 25 percent decrease in enrollment in that time.

Two-thirds of the state’s school districts have seen student enrollments shrink over the past five years, which means fewer per-pupil dollars to stretch.

But fewer students don’t necessarily mean fewer expenses, school officials say. Even a couple hundred fewer bodies can go nearly unnoticed when spread out over a dozen school buildings and a dozen grades.

And shrinking districts such as Cedar Rapids and Davenport can be double-darned, struggling at the same time to deal with steady increases in the number of kids living in poverty and with other factors that make them statistically more likely to struggle.

According to the Child and Family Policy Center, one in five young Iowa children live below the poverty line. Nearly one-fifth of our kids start kindergarten needing to catch up to their peers in their physical, cognitive or social-emotional development.

There, too, a closer look at the numbers reveals large differences among districts.

In a recent analysis conducted on behalf of Early Childhood Iowa, the group identified a few dozen high-poverty census tracts concentrated in only 13 counties. For the most part, a handful of neighborhoods in the state’s largest cities.

No big surprise, maybe. No more than it is to say that meaningful, sustained enrollment growth is a dream for all but a few growing districts.

But food for thought as lawmakers start once again beating the drum for comprehensive school reform.

All these one-size-fits-all theories, all these centralized services, might sound good in Des Moines, but they’re no good if they don’t work in 348 districts — rural and urban, growing and shrinking, rich and poor.

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