Utah’s school-age population will continue declining until 2060, but not everywhere

A recent report predicts the Beehive State will have about 40,000 fewer school children by 2032 and outlines how policymakers could adjust spending in response.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A parent gives public comment as Salt Lake City School District prepares to announce the plan for school closures during a meeting at Glendale Middle School, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Twelve parents and one student took about 30 minutes Monday night to beg the Salt Lake City School District board not to close their schools.

While declining enrollment means “tough choices,” closing some schools would be “truly detrimental” and impact low-income families for which school serves as a lifeline, parents said.

Speakers expressed shock their child’s school was on the list for potential closure and said that, in one case, closing a high-performing school would erode trust with parents. After public comment, Superintendent Elizabeth Grant recommended to the board that the district close Bennion, Hawthorne, Mary W. Jackson and Riley elementary schools.

Amid a statewide trend of enrollment declines, some districts likely will hear similar arguments as they grapple with closures and repurposing facilities.

Demographers project the Beehive State will have about 40,000 fewer school-age youth by 2032, according to a recent research paper from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Though many areas of Utah will rebound in the following decades, Salt Lake County is one of 12 counties where demographers predict a decrease in the school-age population between 2020 and 2060.

Leaders at the local level should carefully look at long-term projections in their areas, but statewide leaders have some budgeting opportunities ahead, the report reads.

Enrollment growth historically has “placed high demands on Utah taxpayers,” the authors write. A statewide decrease in the youth population presents what they call a “unique fiscal opportunity” to increase per-pupil spending, alter tax levels or shift funding to other programs.

Declining enrollment is not unique to Utah, said State Sen. Ann Millner, a Republican from Ogden who co-sponsored legislation earlier this year to address short-term downturns in enrollment.

She said education funding will remain the state’s top priority.

Utah’s State Board of Education is “committed to furthering public education and providing assistance” as districts experience growth or declines in enrollment, said Sharon Turner, the board’s director of public affairs.

Enrollment decline follows decades of growth

After two decades of enrollment growth, projections indicate Utah’s schools will experience a decline starting in the next few years because of lower fertility rates and demographic waves.

School enrollment increased by 1.1% each year on average from 2013 to 2023 after growing by 2.2% per year on average in the previous decade.

Demographers project enrollment will decline an average of 0.6% per year from 2023 to 2033 before beginning to rise again in 2036.

Though the school-age population will continue to grow after that, it will be a lower percentage of the population.

The report predicts the dependency ratio — or the number of a certain population per 100 working-age persons — will be higher for seniors than for youth by the year 2060.

Not all counties will see a long-term decrease

Enrollment shifts aren’t even across the state.

Some schools should expect enrollment declines in the long term, while other schools likely will experience increases.

Cache, Davis, Utah, Wasatch and Washington counties are expected to gain more than 4,000 school-age children each from 2020 to 2060.

In all but Davis County, that’s at least a 30% jump.

The authors recommend that districts expecting large growth plan for more infrastructure and staffing and a potential increase in demand for charter schools.

Another five counties — Carbon, Millard, Salt Lake, Sevier and Summit — are expected to lose more than 1,000 students from 2020 to 2060.

Projections show many rural counties will lose 25% or more of their school-age population, including a 39% drop in Emery County and a 48% drop in Millard County.

Districts and charter schools already experiencing a decline in enrollment may need to close more schools, share more services among schools and districts and reduce staffing, the report says.

Policymakers could increase per-pupil funding, alter tax levels, reallocate revenue growth

Researchers write the flattening and likely declining K-12 enrollment statewide gives policymakers an opportunity to do one of three things:

  1. Increase per-pupil funding

  2. Alter tax levels

  3. Allocate revenue growth elsewhere

The Utah Legislature could increase per-pupil funding under three scenarios, the report reads.

The first would hold districts harmless for inflation and enrollment growth. That means no decrease in funding when enrollment falls and an increase to pace with inflation and student growth when enrollment goes up.

The Legislature already has done something similar, the report says, through HB 394 — the bill Millner sponsored in the state Senate.

That bill addresses per pupil funding increases if voters approve the proposed 2024 constitutional amendment further expanding the potential uses of income taxes.

Millner said it gives legislators the opportunity to consider options even though they might not be funding the same number of students.

Legislators could — and most likely will — increase the per-pupil amount, Millner said. She pointed to teacher salary increases, funding to help economically disadvantaged and special education students, reading initiatives and computer science investments as other possibilities.

“As we work through this, we’ll need to look at the options and how we best support education,” Millner said.

Turner, with the Utah State Board of Education, added many funding formulas already have a provision where districts that experience an enrollment drop “are still funded on the prior year’s enrollment to mitigate impacts for at least one year.”

Under another scenario, legislators could continue to invest at historical growth rates and nearly double per-student spending from $13,000 in fiscal year 2024 to $22,000 in fiscal year 2044 when accounting for inflation.

Finally, legislators could add to the historical growth rate of 5.9% by accounting for inflation, increasing per-pupil spending to more than $40,000 in 20 years.

Alternatively, legislators could further reduce tax rates, building on five rate cuts since 2005. Researchers write that if taxable income continues to grow and per-pupil spending remains relatively flat, the state could reduce the income tax rate from 4.65% to a rate in the high 3% to low 4% range.

Income tax historically has the closest tie to school funding, the report says, but lawmakers also could reduce sales tax, local property taxes, excise taxes or some other tax.

Instead of increasing per-pupil spending or cutting taxes, policymakers could redirect funds to other programs.

The report lists more money for increasing Medicaid costs, buffers for revenue volatility, higher state employee salaries, more funding for transportation and infrastructure and investment in child care as possibilities.

It specifically calls out upward pressure on Medicaid expenses as health care costs grow faster than inflation, major transportation costs amid population growth and high housing costs as major issues.

The state board of education agrees declining state enrollment presents policymakers with options and appreciates the policy institute’s analysis, Turner said.

Enrollment decline isn’t “just a Utah phenomenon,” Millner said, and parents shouldn’t worry that it will lead to subpar education funding.

“I think the number-one funding priority in Utah has always been education, and it will continue to be education,” she said.

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Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.