Public school enrollment in New York has dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, with the largest declines felt by rural upstate districts, according to a new study.

The report was issued by the Empire Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit Albany think tank. It raises concerns that school districts may continue to shed enrollment, with researchers noting a steady drop every year since 2000.

The declines over the past 18 years have left the school districts with a 10 percent drop in total enrollment. At the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, statewide enrollment stood at with an estimated 2.6 million children.

After analyzing the latest U.S. Census data, the Empire Center said it suggests this school year arrives with even fewer students, but did not quantify the current enrollment.

The researchers noted New York’s enrollment decline took place even as the U.S. as a whole saw a 7 percent increase in enrollment since 2000.

New York’s school enrollment peaked in 1970-71, with 3.5 million students. But the schools shed approximately 1 million students in the post-baby boom years of the 1970s and 1980s before they began rebounding in the 1990s, said E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center.

The districts’ combined loss of an estimated 250,000 students over the past 18 years, McMahon said, is a “symptom of a demographic decline” paced by population losses in some upstate counties and out-migration shifts of New Yorkers to other states.

The trend is a sobering one for regions that have experienced the steepest student declines because it suggests they have fewer young families with children.

“Young families are the future,” he said, adding that districts need to have a strong sense of enrollment trends to avoid constructing costly new buildings that may not be needed in a few years.

Concern with the enrollment trends was a factor in a set of policy recommendations issued by the Rural Schools Association of New York this summer, said the nonprofit group’s director, David Little.

The association is calling on Albany lawmakers to update school district merger and consolidation laws to “enable a more democratic and workable expression of the public’s will,” thus addressing barriers to local efforts to combine school districts.

Students, Little suggested, would benefit if they are given greater access to digital classroom platforms, thus expanding the array of courses they can select as they prepare for college or jobs.

“What you have now are kids in rural schools, sitting in a study hall, not getting the same breadth of curriculum everyone else has,” he said.

Little also said many of the problems besetting New York school districts involve forces beyond their control.

“I’m starting to wonder if we are past the point of having the ability to recover from the Great Recession,” he said, citing the jobs and population lost upstate.

Attracting families and the jobs they need to support themselves, he said, has become increasingly challenging.

“We have the highest taxes, the highest debt per capita ratio, which ensures high taxes into the future, and we have an aging infrastructure and high heating and cooling costs,” Little said.

While upstate remains as picturesque as Vermont or Maine, he added, the high taxes have stunted economic growth and impeded the ability to lure industry.

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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