Cedar Rapids open enrollment survey is a good start, but trends remain troubling

We know more about open enrollment losses from Cedar Rapids schools, but not as much as we’d like to know.

The district released the findings this week from a July survey of 499 families who are sending their children to other districts. The most disappointing result was that only 27 percent of those families, or just more than 130, responded. Still, we got a few interesting glimpses.

Among those who responded, 20 percent are sending their kids to the Marion home school assistance program. Another 17 percent cited convenience, picking a school close to work, day care, etc., and 13 percent pointed to concerns about “size” of classes, schools and the district. Programs were cited by 8 percent and safety issues by 7 percent, but these are very small samples.

So families have many reasons. Not surprising. Probably the best result was board chairwoman Mary Meisterling’s call for school officials to conduct the survey annually. Maybe, over time, more parents will take part and useful trends will emerge.

A graph in the report showed Cedar Rapids comfortably in the middle of the pack this year among local schools in the percentage of its enrollment leaving the district, lower, for example, than Linn-Mar. But don’t get too comfortable, because the trends remain troubling.

According to certified budget enrollment numbers the district files with the state, the gap between students open enrolling out of and into Cedar Rapids continues to widen.

This year, 987.2 students (some students, such as home-schooled kids, count as less than a full pupil for the purpose of allocating state aid) are open enrolling out, compared with 389.3 open enrolling in. That’s a loss gap of 597.9 students, up from 540.6 a year ago. Over the past 10 years, that gap has grown steadily from 136.4 in 2003-04 to 429.7 in 2010-11 and to nearly 600 today.

Meanwhile, Linn-Mar's loss gap has been steadily shrinking, from a 452.3 pupil net loss in 2007-2008 to just a 96.1 this year, the smallest gap in the last 10 years.

The reasons for these gaps likely are many and complex. But that gap is important, because the net loss of students is a net loss of state per-pupil funding. Cedar Rapids' budget is already tight.

So the survey is a good first step toward figuring out what can be done to close that gap. This time, the district didn’t survey hundreds of families who moved into Cedar Rapids but continue to send their kids to schools where they previously lived. I think they should be included in the survey next time.

Board members wondered whether the school district does a good job telling its story to the public. Good question. Many more can be asked. Don’t seek comfort or cover in the numbers. Look for answers.

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