Arizona's rural schools squeezed by declining enrollment

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PHOENIX (AP) — Schools in 10 of Arizona's 15 counties have together lost more than 10,000 students in the past decade. Meanwhile, school enrollment in the state's most populous county and home to most of metro Phoenix has risen by over 70,000.

For rural areas, declining enrollment can mean lost funding that makes it harder to recruit qualified teachers and cutbacks in student educational opportunities.

And unlike in suburban districts, rural communities can't easily offset state funding losses with local taxes.

The problems represent a cycle for rural Arizona communities, said Sean Rickert, superintendent of Pima Unified School District in the southern part of the state and a member of the Arizona Rural Schools Association.

"The graduates are leaving and they're not coming back, because they don't see the economic opportunities," Rickert told The Arizona Republic.

Arizona's student population has increasingly clustered in Maricopa County, according to enrollment data from the past two decades tracked by the state Schools Boards Association.

Since 2000, Maricopa County's K-12 public district and charter student enrollment has gone from 481,934 students to 737,280. The county has gone from having nearly 60% of the state's students to 66%.

Other counties over the same two decades have experienced either less student growth or decline.

An analysis of enrollment data by The Republic shows about 150 of the 230 public schools designated rural by the state have lost students since the 2011-2012 school year.

Many of the schools considered rural that gained enrollment are charter schools, which have proliferated in the past decade in Arizona.

But a 2017 report from The Rural School and Community Trust ranked Arizona as one of the worst states for rural school graduation rates and performance on national standardized tests.

Arizona's school funding formula is calculated per student, based on a complicated formula that accounts for, among other needs, whether a student needs special education services. With fewer students, school districts get fewer dollars.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman's administration is working on what's called the "Arizona Student Opportunity Collaborative," according to The Republic.

The program will build a network of qualified teachers to connect with rural students online, allowing rural schools to offer more rigorous courses.

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com


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