As The New York Times points out, the rebound in enrollment in Las Vegas is something the school district tried to prepare for in 2012 when it asked voters to support a $669 million bond measure. That proposal failed at the ballot box, in part because the long-term benefits were a tough sell to voters more interested in preserving their own short-term fiscal outlooks.
So where does that leave Las Vegas? Right now the district is scouting out temporary classroom space in abandoned strip malls, encouraging more students to sign up for virtual classes, and converting nine-month schools to year-round calendars.
The research is a mixed bag on how year-round schools influence student achievement. Some studies have found it benefits students from low-income households who were already struggling academically—the shorter breaks from instruction mean less summer learning loss. In Las Vegas, economics has been the driver of the decision to go year-round, as the campuses are significantly cheaper to operate than building a new school .
But at some point, cost-saving measures simply won’t cover the deficit of classroom seats. At the height of the last boom—roughly 1998 to the full-on recession almost decade later—Clark County was breaking ground on a new school nearly every month. But the last new campus was built in 2010. The district has about 1,800 portable classrooms in use, and 132 of them are 30 years old, said Joyce Haldeman, the school district’s associate superintendent of community and government relations. That’s a problem, given that the life expectancy of the units is 20 years.
There’s another element to be considered in the enrollment boom that the Times didn’t touch on: how Nevada’s per-pupil funding formula factors into the crisis. Like many states, Nevada provides schools with money based on an annual headcount of kids, which took place on the third Friday in September. (Nevada ranks near the bottom nationally when it comes to education funding, but that’s a whole other story.) That means the district doesn’t receive additional money throughout the year even as new students enroll. Discussions are underway as to whether adding a second count day—perhaps in the middle of the academic year—might be beneficial, Haldeman said. That would require a change to state law.
As education reporters, there are some logical elements to consider when writing about school enrollment increases. The first question to ask: Is anyone surprised? Districts typically have demographers on staff responsible for building enrollment forecasts based in part on local birthrates and other factors. The number of babies born in 2014, adjusted for the percentage of families expected to move out of town in the next few years, can give a pretty accurate prediction of the number of first graders expected to register in 2020. (What those forecasts obviously can’t predict are major economic episodes like the recession.)