Tucson Unified School District has been losing students steadily since 2000. Lots of students. At its turn-of-the-millenium high point, the district had 62,500 students. This school year, the number was 46,000. That's a loss of 16,500 students, over 900 a year.
Why is TUSD losing students year after year? The answer you're most likely to hear is, the district is the problem. It's the administration. It's the teachers. It's the curriculum. It's "D," all of the above. Fix the administration, fix the teachers, fix the curriculum, and the numbers will climb.
But the standard answer is far too simple. The district may deserve part of the blame for declining enrollment, but most of the drop was inevitable, created by changes in Arizona's educational landscape and a slowing of Tucson's population growth.
For the sake of argument, let's start with the assumption that TUSD is no better or worse now than it was at its 2000 high water mark of 62,500 students and see what else is causing the district to lose students.
I see three factors beyond the control of the district as the major reasons for the enrollment decline.
Two of the factors were created by the Arizona legislature's push for "school choice." The first is the emergence of charter schools. The competition for a limited pool of students means that every student inside the TUSD boundaries who attends a charter is one less student in the district. The second is the state's open enrollment policy, which lets parents send their children to schools in nearby districts. Open enrollment gets far less attention than charter schools, but it is a significant force pulling students living inside the TUSD boundaries to suburban school districts with more affluent, whiter populations.
The third important factor is the slowdown of Tucson's population growth. Students lost to charter schools and open enrollment haven't been replaced by an influx of new students.
Let's look at the factors one by one.
Arizona's first charter schools opened their doors in 1995. They grew steadily, but since they started from zero, it took awhile for them to have an impact on school districts' enrollment numbers.
In 2000, 50,000 Arizona students were enrolled in charters. I don't have any direct data on how many of those charter students lived inside the TUSD boundaries, but a reasonable estimate is about 3,500. TUSD students made up about 7 percent of the state's public school population in 2000, and 3,500 is 7 percent of the state's charter school population.
Assuming charters exert the same draw on Tucson-area students as they do in Arizona's other urban areas, about 13,000 students who would otherwise be in TUSD are now attending charters, 9,500 of those added since 2000.
So we can subtract 9,500 from TUSD's student population since 2000 due to the advent of charter schools.
In 2019, TUSD had 16,000 fewer Anglo students than it did in 2000, a number, not coincidentally, almost identical to the district's overall enrollment decline of 16,500. Where did those students go?
Anglo parents who moved out of the city with their children during those years account for some of the decline. In 2018, Tucson had about 5,000 fewer Anglo residents than in 2000. A significant portion of charter school students are Anglo, accounting for more of the decline. But those two factors don't add up to all the Anglo students who left TUSD. Open enrollment played a significant role as well.
Open enrollment became state law at the same time the first charter schools opened their doors. With open enrollment, students were no longer bound to the attendance area of their local schools. For the first time, if a district school anywhere had an empty desk, any student could fill it regardless of where he or she lived. That means parents can pick and choose between schools inside or outside their home districts.
Open enrollment doesn't get much press coverage, but it is a major change in the options parents have when choosing schools for their children. For TUSD, it has led inevitably to parents living in the district sending their children to schools in neighboring districts. Districts like Catalina Foothills and Vail are two big draws for TUSD-area parents who want their children to have the kind of education offered in affluent suburbs, and other nearby districts may pull some students from the TUSD areas as well. Other than University High, TUSD has few schools which draw a significant number of out-of-district students.
Think of open enrollment as the most recent version of "white flight."
Before there was an open enrollment policy, beginning in the 1960s, Anglo families around the country fled from cities and moved to the suburbs in search of schools they believed would give their children a better education. White flight hit TUSD the hardest from 1975 though 1985, with the district's Anglo student population dropping by 10,000. After 1985, the number of Anglo students in the district stabilized until 2000, when it began dropping again.
With open enrollment, Anglo families — and, of course, families from other ethnic groups — could send their children wherever they wanted without hanging a "For Sale" sign on their homes. All they needed were nearby districts with room for out-of-district students and the ability to transport their children to those schools.
I don't have solid figures for the number of students living inside TUSD boundaries who attend nearby school districts, but it looks to be in the thousands.
Catalina Foothills School District is one of the places where parents living in the TUSD boundaries are likely to send their children. According to the CFSD website, 3,000 students used open enrollment last year. That's an extraordinarily large number for a district of 5,200 students, far more than you would expect from in-district parents opting to send their children to a school outside their attendance area.
Some of the people making use of the open enrollment policy are certainly district residents. But CFSD has only one high school, meaning there cannot be in-district high school transfers. When you take the approximately 1,700 students attending Catalina Foothills High from the district total, that only leaves 3,500 attending the district's two middle schools and five elementary schools. It's unlikely that more than a few hundred of the open enrollment students are children living in the district whose parents choose to send them to a district elementary or middle school outside their enrollment area.
A high percentage of the 3,000 open enrollment students are likely to be from outside the district. They can come from any nearby district, but because of the number of students living in the TUSD attendance area and the likelihood of a significant number of those parents wanting to place their children in a suburban school, it's probable TUSD students make up the largest group of out-of-district students.
Vail is the other affluent district adjacent to TUSD. Because it sits to the southeast of Tucson, away from other suburban population centers, most out-of-district students are likely to come from TUSD.
Unlike Catalina Foothills, Vail doesn't list how many of its 4,000 students take advantage of open enrollment. I know from anecdotal evidence that Vail actively courts TUSD students, but I don't know how many attend schools in the district.
I can only estimate a range for the number of students living in the TUSD area who attend schools in other districts since I don't have hard figures to go on. I'll put that number at anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 students, acknowledging it could be lower or higher.
To say Tucson has grown since the beginning of the 20th century is an understatement. In 1900 it was a small town of 7,500 residents. By 1950, its population had increased six times, to 45,000 residents. In the next decade the city had a growth spurt. By 1960, the population tripled to 213,000.
After 1960, the city settled into a slower but steady pattern of population growth of about 20 percent per decade. Tucson took 40 years to double its population again, reaching 487,000 residents in 2000.
Then in 2000, the city's population growth hit a wall. It continued growing, but at a quarter the rate of the earlier four decades, adding just 46,000 people by 2017. If it had continued at the post-1960 rate, it would have added 180,000 people.
It was at the beginning of the slowdown in population growth that TUSD began losing students.
If Tucson's population growth had been higher since 2000, newly arriving students would have masked the loss to charter schools and open enrollment by replacing the students who went elsewhere. But the slow growth meant, when parents chose to send their children to charters or to schools in neighboring districts, they made a large dent in TUSD's enrollment numbers.
Population Movement Within Tucson
The number of students who I have estimated live in the TUSD area but attend charter schools or other districts is 4,000 to 5,000 students short of the actual 16,500 drop in enrollment. It may be that my charter and open enrollment estimates are low. I believe they are, but I would rather lowball the numbers than inflate them. However, there is another aspect of TUSD's enrollment decline I haven't mentioned yet, and that is the shifts in population within Tucson.
Four school districts other than TUSD have part of their enrollment areas inside the city of Tucson. Flowing Wells and Amphitheater school districts are on the northwest corner of the city, Vail is on the southeast corner and Sunnyside is in the south. That means a number of Tucson children live in those districts' attendance areas.
I haven't delved into the Tucson census data in detail, but what I have looked at indicates that, since 2000, the areas served by those four districts have grown faster than the part of Tucson served by TUSD. It makes sense that the outer areas of Tucson would have put on more growth than the more central portion of the city. The rest of the metropolitan area outside of the city of Tucson grew at about three times the rate of the city, so you would expect the area on the periphery of Tucson to follow a similar pattern.
If the Tucson growth patterns I've seen in census data are an accurate indication of where Tucson has added people since 2000, that would mean that the population inside the TUSD boundaries hasn't grown significantly in the last 18 years. It may even have decreased a bit. If true, that would also play a part in TUSD's enrollment decline.
From 2000 onward, TUSD's enrollment fell victim to two "school choice" initiatives from the legislature and a slowdown in the city's population growth.
Whenever charters set up shop in an area, they take students from the local school district, as they did with TUSD. When parents of means decide to take advantage of the state's open enrollment policies and send their children to schools with high test scores and low numbers of minority students, the students leave TUSD for suburban pastures without
actually leaving the city. When those two factors pull students from TUSD and not enough children move into the district to replace them, the district's enrollment numbers plummet.
That's what happened in TUSD. Similar factors have led to declines in urban district enrollments around the country. It's less the quality of the district's administration, instruction and curriculum than outside forces which have led to shrinking enrollment numbers.
It's impossible to know if the decline in TUSD enrollment would have been lower if the district had put together more successful efforts to hold onto its students and attract new ones, but the difference would have been a few thousand students. Certainly TUSD could have done better, and it can do better in the future. But most of the student loss over the past 18 years has been due to factors beyond the district's control.