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State school board

The West Virginia Board of Education met Wednesday and Thursday in Charleston.

West Virginia Schools Superintendent Steve Paine announced Thursday that prekindergarten to 12th-grade enrollment has dropped 4,858 students from last school year, including a 544-student drop in Kanawha County.

Statewide enrollment is now about 270,600. A Kanawha spokeswoman said Thursday the county’s drop was only 463, and it’s unclear what the discrepancy is.

The statewide reduction, the largest one-year enrollment drop since 2000-01, will likely reduce statewide school funding next year by millions of dollars, if lawmakers don’t change the school aid funding formula.

The state’s establishment of its free prekindergarten program since the 2002-03 school year might limit direct comparability with the year 2000, because the move added more grade levels from which to lose students.

Paine also said at Thursday’s state Board of Education meeting that 54,000 students, about a fifth of the statewide enrollment, missed more than 18 days of classes last school year. Eighteen days is roughly a tenth of a school year.

Regarding the enrollment drop, Paine said Kanawha’s drop was the largest in raw numbers but represented a 2 percent drop, while Ritchie County’s drop was the largest in percentage, at about 7 percent.

A West Virginia Department of Education document estimated that 2,252 of the lost students were from declining birth rates. It also said 707 more students than last year withdrew from public schools to attend private schools or to be home-schooled.

Paine estimated that 2,000 of this year’s enrollment drop were due to legislation — Senate Bill 186 — that neither the education department nor the state school board, which oversees the department, vocally fought against as it wound its way through the Legislature in 2017.

Department officials said they were neutral on the legislation. When asked about the department’s stance on that bill, Paine said “don’t make a story where there’s not a story.”

SB 186 delayed the right to free prekindergarten for students without special needs. Paine called the enrollment drop from this delay “artificial” because the students will enroll in prekindergarten later.

Deputy Superintendent Clayton Burch said he believes the biggest hit will be the current one. But he said some students who were delayed in entering public preschool by the bill might go right into kindergarten, which, unlike preschool, has a policy for early entrance.

West Virginia county school systems are funded largely based on enrollment. They effectively don’t receive a full year of per-pupil funding for each student who decides to skip preschool.

Regardless of whether the preschool numbers are mostly restored next year — and even if 2,000 students are excluded from the drop, it’s still larger than last school year’s 2,557-student reduction — county boards of education will have to grapple with funding cuts caused by enrollment losses.

The state school aid funding formula uses enrollment numbers from one school year to determine funding levels for the next school year.

West Virginia offers free prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds. The state also offers it to all 3-year-olds with special needs, including speech. Burch said another couple-thousand 3-year-olds attend by qualifying through Head Start.

SB 186 meant that free early education programs only had to be offered to all children who are 4 years old by July 1 of the school year in which their families planned to enroll them. Previously, those children had the right to free preschool as long as they turned 4 years old by Sept. 1 of the school year in which their families planned to enroll them.

Provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System has shown that July and August are two of West Virginia’s top three months for births.

Burch said he had heard the change was requested because people thought “the children were [too] young or maybe developmentally not ready and that two months would make a difference.” But he said he doesn’t think it did make a difference.

“At this age, it’s about developmental age, not chronological age,” Burch said. “So you will still have a 4-year-old in some cases that developmentally is a 2-year-old, and you will still have a 4-year-old that developmentally is maybe reading. So, as a teacher in a classroom, you will still have to deal with children from a 1 and 2 developmental age, to possibly a 7 or 8 developmental age.”

Burch said the department “absolutely” does support, if there’s enough money, expanding West Virginia’s free prekindergarten system to cover all 3-year-olds.

“That just is straight-up research,” Burch said. “The younger you can engage them.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at

ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com,

facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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