Statewide student enrollment over the past decade and a half tells a different story than a district-by-district breakdown: Rural areas continue to be drained of students while the gains are concentrated in the suburbs.
By the raw certified enrollment total, the state is about 5,000 down from 2001-02 to 2015-16 (489,522.8 vs. 484,378). That is actually a recovery from a valley in 2010. But here’s the change: The top 20 districts by enrollment now educate 42% of Iowa’s students, up from 38% in 2001.
From 2001 to 2015, six districts — Waukee, Ankeny, Iowa City/Clear Creek Amana, Johnston, and Southeast Polk — added nearly 20,000 students while the rest of the state lost 25,000. (I am grouping Iowa City and CCA together because, while Iowa City is much bigger, North Liberty and Coralville are split between them, and it’s the most effective way to get the total growth in the area.)
I was going to give year-by-year enrollment equivalents of these fast-growing districts for the last 15 years, but the lists got quite lengthy. To illustrate what I was going for, Waukee added the entire enrollment of North Tama to its 2003-04 student body, and then added the entire enrollment of North Tama again in 2014-15. Instead, here is the aggregate growth of 15 years and their equivalents. Between 2001 and 2015:
- Waukee added the entire 2015 enrollment of Johnston, which is on this list in its own right below.
- Ankeny added the entire 2015 enrollment of Ottumwa.
- Iowa City/Clear Creek Amana added the entire enrollment of Indianola between them.
- Johnston added Oskaloosa and threw in Orient-Macksburg for good measure. It’s building a new high school and the existing one will be turned into one for eighth and ninth grades.
- Southeast Polk added the entire 2015 enrollment of Storm Lake.
- The next two fastest-growing districts, Linn-Mar and Pleasant Valley, weren’t too shabby either, adding roughly the enrollments of Harlan and Boone, respectively.
As the rural districts drop in enrollment, per-pupil funding shrinks accordingly, and that’s not the only squeeze on the financial end. For a decade the Legislature has put education funding on meager rations — annual allowable growth below 3 percent means expenses outpace the budget. Keeping expenses down means, in turn, keeping salaries down, and the effect of that is that instead of hiring “lifers” small districts become the equivalent of triple-A ball or small network affiliates, a stopover place to pay one’s dues before moving on to a bigger gig. Rapid turnover has its own effects on education.